The Paradox of Choice

A couple of recent purchases got me thinking about how choice factors into where and how I spend my money.

As my Honda Odyssey neared 200,000 miles, I began researching potential replacements. Unlike sedans and trucks, there are only a handful of minivans sold in the US. In fact, there's maybe five that qualify as traditional minivans and they include the Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna, Dodge Caravan/Chrysler Town and Country, Kia Sedona, and Nissan Quest.

I narrowed my choices to the Odyssey and the Sienna after reading owner reviews and reliability records in Consumer Reports. Within a couple of days, I'd settled on the Odyssey. I contacted a local Honda dealer by email and explained what I wanted. A few days later, they found the exact model and trim level I wanted at the price I wanted to pay. It was a near frictionless car purchase.

While selecting from a number of minivan choices was painless, finding a replacement vacuum has been anything but enjoyable. I know even less about vacuums than I do about cars, so I went to Amazon for help.

Searching for "vacuum cleaners" presented 12,673 results.

You've got to be kidding.

I narrowed the search to vacuums that cost over $200 assuming that would produce a manageable number.


Now I'm left with 3,661 results. Clicking "Upright Vacuums" brought the number down to 1,424. Selecting "Bagless" lowered the results under 300. And finally, selecting those available for Prime shipping surfaced 33 vacuums for my research.

At this point, do you know what I did? I tapped out. Called it a day. I bookmarked the results, and I'll return later when the floor is too dirty to ignore.

This experience reminded me of a book I read years ago called "The Paradox of Choice" by Barry Schwartz. In short, Schwartz argues that eliminating consumer choice can greatly reduce anxiety for shoppers. We might assume that having nearly unlimited choices (and this is exactly what Amazon provides today) leads to greater satisfaction. But that's seldom the case. With so many vacuum models, how could I know I was making the right decision?

We've experimented with this idea at Puget Systems when we reduced the number of laptop we offer from six to three. You might assume sales would tank when we reduced our line by 50%, but the opposite happened and sales jumped.

Costco embraces the practice of limiting your choices within a product category. For example, Costco offers only four brands of toothpaste while Walmart offers 60. This allows Costco to purchase massive quantities from a few brands which drives prices lower and ultimately promotes customer loyalty.

Over time, Costco members learn to trust the products they offer. When that same customer needs a treadmill or other high ticket item, she won't be offended by the limited selection. In fact, she will appreciate how Costco narrowed her search to the three treadmills she should consider.

At Puget Systems, we haven't perfected the practice of narrowing choice in the same manner Costco has been able to accomplish, but we are improving in this regard. Here are few ways we nudge you towards the best computer:

  1. Certified Systems – These are our main computer lines that include Serenity, Obsidian, Genesis and the like. These are the systems we build day in and day out. These are the computers we recommend to family and friends. Our most satisfied customers purchase certified systems. Nobody got fired for buying a certified system.
  2. Recommended Systems – These are computers engineered for a specific task. Examples would be recommended systems designed specifically for AutoDesk's AutoCAD or Adobe Photoshop or Bitplane Imaris. Eric works with both software and hardware companies to ensure components are optimized for the task the software performs. This process takes a lot of time and patience.
  3. Puget Labs – Before we sell any product, it must undergo an extensive testing routine as well as meet our quality and reliability standards. We keep extensive reliability, support and return records on every component we sell, down to the last stick of RAM. We've had to yank products from our offering because, while the might perform well, they don't pass muster in labs. If we don't feel good about putting our name on it, we don't sell it.

Of course these are merely starting points. If you really want to experience what separates Puget Systems from every other computer company, give us a call. William, Jeff or Wilson will listen to what tasks your computer must accomplish. With this information they will tailor a system based on those needs that's within your budget. It's like having your own custom computer concierge.

Now, does anyone know if Costco sells vacuums?

*Barry Schwartz also gave a fantastic TED Talk about his book, the Paradox of Choice.