Business musings

Articles and thoughts about all things innovative and strategic

Toothpaste aside for a moment, I’d love to share with you an idea that I’ve been mulling over for nearly six months now…

Less is more and, believe it or not, your business can be more with less!

Minimalism and de-cluttering have become popular personal paradigms—you only have to Google ‘de-cluttering’ for a wealth of hints, tips, articles and websites on how to de-clutter your life.

Surprisingly, there is also a profusion of literature (both academic and experiential) that supports the value of de-cluttering your business, particularly your product lines and service offerings.

Reducing the range of choices that you offer your customers not only increases the likelihood that they will buy in the first place but it also increases their level of satisfaction with the purchase they make.

De-cluttering therefore creates value for your business. Simplification also frees up your time and resources enabling you to be outstanding at the few things you do rather than mediocre at the many.

Allow me to tell you a story…

I have sensitive teeth. When I bite into an ice cream or switch quickly between hot and cold, needles of pain shoot through my teeth. Until earlier this year, I was relying on Colgate Time Control to reduce these sensations. For whatever reason, Colgate seem to have discontinued this toothpaste and eventually I found myself in Sainsbury staring at a rather overwhelming myriad of choices.

Photograph of seven shelves filled with different brands and types of toothpaste at Sainsbury supermarketColgate alone sell no fewer than six different types of sensitive toothpaste: Total Sensitive, Sensitive Pro-Relief, Sensitive, Sensitive Whitening, Sensitive Multi Protection and Sensitive Enamel Protect.

The marketing speak on the boxes is virtually indecipherable and, to all intents and purposes, they all seem to do the same thing! I’m sure there’s more science involved but, from a lay-person’s perspective, the subtle differences between each product are almost impossible to discern.

And that’s not even including other brands. Sensodyne, Arm & Hammer, Oral B, Sainsbury’s own brand—the list goes on!

After standing at the shelves for a rather long time (certainly longer than should be necessary to buy a tube of toothpaste!), I eventually dropped a box of Total Sensitive into my trolley. Why? To be honest, simply because Matt uses Colgate Total Advanced Whitening and it seems to work for him.

Fortunately, my choice seems to have been a good one and I haven’t suffered any sensitivity or pain. Yet, every time I pass the shelves I find myself questioning whether there is a better toothpaste for me. Surely choosing toothpaste shouldn’t be this complicated?!

The art of simplicity

In another, totally different situation earlier this year, I was conversely impressed by the art of simplicity.

Photograph of a free-standing blackboard inside the door of the tearooms at David Austen's Plant Centre. Written on the blackboard in chalk is the title 'Today's Lunch Menu' with a selection of six main courses: A Rose Gardeners plate; A Generous Garden platter; Constance Spry; Graham Thomas; The Countrymans Sandwich; The Charles Darwin sandwich.For a thoroughly English outing and to celebrate my mum’s birthday, Matt and I visited David Austen’s Plant Centre. Heading to the tearooms for lunch, we found ourselves stood inside the door by a blackboard with ‘Today’s Lunch Menu’ handwritten in chalk.

As we waited to be seated, we read the menu. Served between 12 – 2.30pm, diners at the tearooms could choose from a selection of six lunchtime platters: two different types of sandwiches, a garden platter, pâté, coronation chicken or dressed Devon crab. Even with only six options, we had difficulty choosing but, by the time we were seated, the waitress was able to take our order immediately.

A restaurant menu is one situation in which an abundance of choice is generally thought to be a good thing. Interestingly however, the limited selection offered in the tearooms not only conferred benefits upon the diners—we were seated quickly despite a long queue, received our meals almost immediately, were given great customer service and ate a fabulous meal—but also upon the business itself.

The tedious chore of queuing was transformed into a creative choice process; diners reached their decisions faster, enabling a higher number of covers to be filled within the short lunchtime period; food production was highly efficient as only a limited number of dishes were being served; and ordering processes are likely to have been simplified and relatively volume based.

Around the same time as this, I stumbled across another article on the idea of less is more. In this article, Lawrence Chan profiled The Doughnut Vault—a doughnut store in Chicago .

Starting at 8.30am Tuesday-Friday and 9.30am on Saturday, The Doughnut Vault typically sell between 750 to 900 doughnuts per day but once they’re sold out (often by 10am!), that’s it—they’re sold out. Even though the store only offer a limited range of flavours, the queue to buy is often 40 to 50 people deep and nearly an hour long to wait.

As Lawrence points out, “scarcity lends value”. By limiting availability and supply, The Doughnut Vault creates a sense of urgency and demand for their product. Not only that, but as Brian Adams expresses in one of the blog’s comments, limited options enable “higher quality control”, conferring further benefits upon the business.

I was similarly intrigued by another of the blog’s comments by Fabiana Loverde de Huffaker:

My sister opened a home decor store that is only open on Thursdays. She has 400-600 transactions per week. Prices are to die for, service is top notch. People come from all parts of the western US with trailers and will clean her out. The thinking was, if you need something from Walmart, and you know it is open 24/7, you put it off. If you can only get it one day a week, you make it a priority to get there on that one day. People thought she was crazy and 5 years later, she can not keep up with demand. Donuts or decor – the principle works!

A sound business case

As I hinted earlier, aside from the experiential evidence above, an extremely sound business case can be made for embracing the idea of less is more.

Back in 2000, Sheena Iyengar (a professor at Columbia Business School) and Mark Lepper (a professor of psychology at Stanford University) conducted what has become a classic study on the consequences of choice.

Whether examining the behaviour of consumers purchasing jam in an upscale grocery store, the performance of social psychology students in an extra-credit essay assignment, or the satisfaction and purchasing behaviour of individuals tasting chocolates, Iyengar and Lepper consistently demonstrated that a wider range of choice can have a detrimental effect on satisfaction, performance, motivation and even purchasing behaviour. Even in situations where choice had relatively trivial consequences, their results were startling.

When consumers were presented with a tasting booth of Wilkin & Sons’ jam at Draeger’s Supermarket, those consumers who encountered a display of only six different varieties of jam were ten times more likely to buy than those individuals who encountered a display of twenty-four varieties.

Similarly, students who encountered only six different flavours of Godiva chocolates were four times as likely to choose a box of chocolates over the offer of $5 than those who either encountered thirty different flavours or those who had been given no choice in which chocolate to sample. Individuals who had encountered a limited range of flavours were also significantly more satisfied with the chocolate that they tasted.

Such findings have been replicated time and again. In 2004, Barry Schwartz wrote ‘The paradox of choice: why more is less’—over 200 pages of examples and evidence supporting the idea that whilst we feel like an abundance of choice should bring freedom and happiness, in fact too much choice “might even be said to tyrannize”.

And household brands are learning from these ideas and capitalising upon them.

In the early 1990s, Proctor & Gamble reduced its product roster by one third; “even the mighty Head & Shoulders line was pared in half”. In the same period, P&G’s overall sales grew by one third and sales per item in hair care more than doubled, with market share in hair care growing by nearly five points.

More recently, “when General Motors shrunk its brands from eight to four last year, dealers reported a 16% increase in sales.”

Is it time to de-clutter your business?

In the face of the possibility that your business could become more with less and could even gain competitive advantage, is it time to trim your product lines or service offerings? Have they become unnecessarily complex or overwhelmingly confusing? Could you create value for your organisation and your customers by adopting the idea that less is more?

In a world in which complexity increases almost daily, being able to make simple choices is a refreshing change and simplicity helps you to stand out from the crowd. Far from being unhelpful or constrictive, by giving our customers less choice, we actually release them to focus on the more important things in life. After all, life is too short to spend more than 2 minutes worrying about which toothpaste to buy!

And for those of you who like the research…

Button, G. (2011). Over-branding kills profits and scares off consumers. Fast Company’s Co.Design

Iyengar, S. & Lepper, M. (2000). When choice is demotivating: can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 79: 995-1006.

Schiller, Z., Burns, G. & Lowry, K. (1996). Make it simple. BusinessWeek.com

Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: why more is less. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

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