Monday, January 22, 2018 | Today's Vending Industry News
How Much Choice Is Enough? Too Many Alternatives Can Paralyze Decision-Making Abilities

by Kevin Daw
Posted On: 9/21/2012

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TAGS: choice and anxiety, TEDTalks, TED, Technology Entertainment and Design,The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz, Sheena Iyengar, office coffee service, vending, vending machine business, Heritage Coffee, OCS best practices, Kevin Daw, Vending Times

One of the best features of using a service such as Netflix is that its catalog contains hidden gems, in the form of documentaries and such. For example, I recently came across a series of lectures under the title "TEDTalks." The concept and mission of TED was developed to allow a stage for the world's greatest thinkers, initially in the fields of Technology, Entertainment and Design (or TED), without political rhetoric or corporate sponsorship.

Fortunately, the concept has grown wider in scope and with the simple tagline, "ideas worth spreading," TED Talks draws excellent speakers. Keeping to a maximum of 18 minutes, the lectures are powerful and very thought-provoking. For those who don't subscribe to Netflix, there is a website -- -- describing the program and offering many of the best speakers. I highly recommend it when you have some spare time.

One such TED talk, presented by psychologist Barry Schwartz, posits that, given the unprecedented amount of choice North Americans are presented with today, logic would suggest that we should be much happier than we are. But in fact, there is strong evidence to the contrary, as added choice seems to raise anxiety and, quite often, can lead to no choice being made at all.

This point resonated with me strongly, as over many years of sales during which I have offered varying amounts of choices to prospects, I had come to the same conclusion -- without years of psychology courses or in-depth reading on the subject.

Offer coffee service prospects two choices and they will easily decide which one they prefer. Offer them 12 coffees, and the situation can quickly devolve into pondering the finer points of several options, without a clear winner in sight.

We all know the benefits of having more choices in our lives, and having these options does indeed improve our lot in life in many ways. However, in his book The Paradox of Choice, Schwartz cites a study by Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University and Mark Lepper of Stanford University. They found that, when participants were faced with a smaller rather than larger array of chocolates, they were actually more satisfied with their tasting.

This is no small discovery, given our industry's trend toward offering a greater and greater number of choices in an attempt to satisfy each and every individual in our client offices.

When I started out as an office coffee service salesman some 30 years ago, the brewing options I presented were pourover or plumbed-in automatic, with one option for countertop coin-actuated brewers. As for coffee, our total offerings ran to about eight blends, including decaf and our private label.

No options were offered in our allied product line, other than a few flavors of Herb-Ox soup mix, and sugar in either a canister or, if you wished to pay up a bit, individual packets.

The benefit from the standpoint of a salesperson was clear and evident: I could demo our entire line of offerings in one session quite easily, and leave the client a few days' worth of product to mull over while deciding whether they might go with branded- or private-label coffee, as that was usually the biggest choice they would have to make.

For many operators, the OCS pitch is all about choices: How to offer as many options as possible so as to be sure to have a larger menu (and therefore more appeal) than the competition. And why not?

Just in the area of brewing systems, we have expanded the methods of delivery multifold over the years. A few years ago, my own company created a concept in which operators could offer customized French press programs! If you add to these the multitude of coffee blends, flavors and origins that we now feel compelled to offer, the potential choices our clients ultimately have to make number in the thousands.

So how could such great abundance of individual choices possibly be a bad thing?

Well, you can cheat and search for Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice, on for his take on the question, and his answer; but be forewarned, if you choose to do so, you may not find my continuation of this article in next month's issue nearly as satisfying. In that installment, I will outline why the massive amount of choices we now offer may not be in the best interests of our clients, or for that matter, ourselves.

A final thought on a different subject. If you're a procrastinator like me, you may not have yet booked your flight to New Orleans for NAMA's Coffee Tea & Water show, Nov. 13 through 15. Save yourself a few hundred by booking your trip directly after you finish reading the rest of this issue.

May your coffee be hot, and your salespeople bothered!

KEVIN DAW is president of Heritage Coffee Co. (London, ON, Canada), a leading private-label roaster serving the breaktime management industries in North America. He is in charge of coffee buying for Heritage. A 30-year veteran of the workplace service business, Daw has served as a commission coffee service salesman, a principal of a vending operation and president of a bottled water company. Since 1990, he has concentrated on coffee roasting. Active in industry affairs, Daw is a Specialty Coffee Association of America Certified Brewing Technician, a member of the National Beverage and Products Association Hall of Fame, a recipient of the National Automatic Merchandising Association Supplier of the Year Award and a NAMA Coffee Service Committee member.