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Is choice overload affecting your sales?

Retail customers are delighted by an abundance of choice. They ramble through antique shops “oohing” and “ahhing.” One well-researched theory of why retail customers walk out without buying anything proposes that large, diverse inventories can inhibit buying.

Antique dealers are proud of their inventories, and for good reason. They travel far afield searching for new and interesting items to offer for sale: they rummage through estate sales, walk for miles through large outdoor events, and scan online auctions for hours, picking and curating their merchandise.

Retail customers are delighted by an abundance of choice. They ramble through antique shops “oohing” and “ahhing” (making it clear to sales associate that they are “just looking”). When they are done browsing, many walk out without buying anything. Their reasons for not buying are endless, but one well-researched theory proposes that large, diverse inventories can inhibit buying. Antique malls are a good example of such inventories: shoppers encounter dozens of haphazardly arranged booths filled with randomly displayed merchandise. Who could make sense of it all? As author and sales trainer Tom Hopkins reminds us in his book When Buyers Say No, “a confused mind always says no.”

Diverse and poorly organized inventories are confusing and create an impediment to buying. Such inventories are said to generate “choice overload.”

What is choice overload?

Choice overload was demonstrated in 1995 by Dr. Sheena Iyengar, professor of business at Columbia University and author of The Art of Choosing []. In her now-famous study, Iyengar’s team set up a display of Wilkin & Sons jams in a California gourmet market. The display would alternate every two hours between twenty-four jams and six jams. Customers were rewarded with a $1 off coupon for tasting a jam or two. Both displays generated about the same number of tasters. Results showed that 60 percent of participating customers were attracted to the large display, and 40 percent of customers were drawn to the smaller display. But — and here’s the salient point — 30 percent of customers sampling from the smaller display purchased jam, as opposed to just 3 percent of those sampling from the larger display. The smaller display had a 10-times-higher conversion rate.

The resulting hypothesis was that although “abundance of choice” is appealing as a theory, in practice too much choice confuses customers and is a barrier to making a purchase decision.

Iyengar’s conclusions have since been duplicated using other products; much of the choice-overload research is summarized in Barry Schwartz’s bestselling book The Paradox of Choice.

Reading the research materials, it became apparent to me that choice overload is a bigger problem for brick-and-mortar stores than it is for online sellers. Shoppers in an offline retail store must mentally parse multiple product categories and display assortments, often without the aid of a sales associate. Online shoppers, though, can search by keyword and sort by price, proximity, or popularity, and refer to reviews for guidance. An online search that started as choice overload could be quickly pared down to a manageable quantity.

How can antique dealers keep a large, diverse inventory without falling into the “choice overload” trap? Two ways have been suggested: first, a clear, consistent merchandising approach, and second, an engaging and knowledgeable staff.

Merchandising an antique store is complicated by the fact that we have two types of buyers with distinctly different shopping styles: collectors and browsers. We can’t focus our merchandising on one group without sacrificing sales from the other.

Collectors enter your store with intent: They seek certain items and come in to see if you have anything that will complement their collections.

Stores that are organized by category appeal to collectors; areas dedicated to glass, advertising, toys, tools, and so on make items easy to find. The psychological maxim “motivation affects perception” applies to collectors: they will walk through your store with their radar on. If you have an item they collect (and have displayed it so it can be seen) a collector will find it.

Coaxing impulse purchases from browsers takes a little more planning and effort. Although this group isn’t shopping for anything in particular, they are still vulnerable to nostalgic impulses. Nostalgic items can make an instant emotional connection. To capitalize on these impulses, dealers can create displays that appeal to specific cohorts, like Boomers (items from the 1950s and 1960s), Gen X (mid ‘60s through 1980), and Millennials (1980 through 2000).

Creating displays that sell

To create such displays, begin by asking the following questions for the items you want to promote:

  • What is the item, and when was it popular?
  • Who is the customer for that product? What is their age cohort?
  • What are the nostalgia triggers for that group? (usually popular cultural events from school years one through twelve).

When those questions are answered, you’ll find it easy to cross-promote items from the same decade, build period displays, adopt nostalgic signage, and use period music as emotional reinforcement.

Combining the above merchandising methods will enable you to capture the interest of both collectors and browsers. Stock your in-depth merchandise in well-marked categories for easy shopping but use the best of your nostalgic merchandise to create specialized period displays.

The key to bridging the gap between these two merchandising approaches is the sales staff. It’s imperative that they know where all the merchandise is located. If an advertising collector doesn’t see anything he wants among your category selection, an engaged sales associate will be able to take him the appropriate nostalgia display to view other advertising items.

The job of the sales associate is to provide clarity: to help the customer “whittle down” the options, make a purchase, and leave with a sense of satisfaction. With dedicated collectors, making a purchase is a yes-or-no decision: You either have what they want, or you don’t. Satisfying the needs of collectors is your bread-and-butter business; it will pay the rent. Satisfying the needs of browser-buyers, though, will transform your business.

Having a well-curated, diverse inventory is a credit to your skill as an antique picker. Don’t let your distinctive inventory become an impediment to making sales. Merchandise your store effectively and train your sales associates in active customer engagement. By doing so, you will turn choice overload into a satisfying retail experience for each of your customers. is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to and affiliated websites. 

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