Gatorade recently revamped its product line into a three level system, with different formulations that are each intended for use specifically before, during, and after athletics. Gatorade probably hopes that lifting a gym bag with the added weight of three different beverages will result in a more strenuous, and therefore more satisfying, workout for consumers.
Younger readers will probably not believe that originally Gatorade came in one size and one flavor. It was developed in 1965 by the medical and training staff of the University of Florida Gators football team. So the name wasn’t just some marketing hype. And it made total sense that Gatorade was originally offered in a single flavor, a tart yellowish green reminiscent of actual alligators or of some still unidentified Florida citrus.
I remember when the Stokely food company, (the same folks that gave us those delicious Van Camp’s pork and beans), introduced the orange version of Gatorade when I was a kid. We were excited because we had something we had never had before. A choice. Americans love choices. Now, forty years later, we greet the latest reshuffling of the bloated Gatorade product line with a collective yawn. And lest you think I was completely joking about the immense number of Gatorade offerings available in recent years from current producer Pepsi, I point out we didn’t even go for any of the cheap laughs associated with the now defunct Gatorade Tiger flavor.
Somehow, in the last half-century we have gone from being delighted at being offered a choice to being offered so many choices that the entire concept starts to achieve meaninglessness and break down in unexpected and strange ways. Since the beginning of this century psychologists and sociologists have been studying how we become overwhelmed by too many choices. The pioneering work was done by Sheena Iyengar, PhD, a management professor at Columbia University Business School, and Mark Lepper, PhD, a psychology professor at Stanford University.
Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice—Why More Is Less (2004) argues that excessive choice produces anxiety and guilt. Too many choices make us less likely to purchase, and when we do purchase, we tend to buy less. There is a Goldilocks zone where you have offered consumers just the right amount of choices to make them happy consumers. The problem is, your competitors are also flooding the market with choices, which can lead to stressed out consumers unwilling to buy.
Psychologists have repeatedly found that in a high choice environment, if a product does not meet expectations, then consumers strangely will blame themselves and not the producers of the product. If there are twenty choices in the food court at the mall and you pick one that has bad food then it is possible to have a strange sense of buyer’s remorse that makes you feel like it’s your fault. You could have picked one of the other restaurants a few feet away, which probably would have had far better food. The problem isn’t that the sandwich you had for lunch was made poorly from inferior ingredients, but rather that you are unable to order tasty food properly.
The restaurant that benefits most from this quirk of human nature would naturally be the one whose menu offers the largest variety of choices. In my experience, that has to be The Cheesecake Factory, where the menu is a spiral bound tome of a dozen or more pages.
Whenever I eat at The Cheesecake Factory, I often have in mind three or four offerings I might order before I even get half-way through reading the menu. I’m not implying at all that The Cheesecake Factory does not serve great food. I’ve had some really great meals there, and their salads are the stuff of legend, but it’s the kind of place where people always want to share a taste of what other diners at the table are having. Inevitably someone at the table has something tastier than what you ordered. You taste your tablemate’s more delicious entrée, and immediately have that familiar sense of diner’s remorse, “I wish I had gotten that.” You just need to get better at ordering, and what better way to do that than to return to The Cheesecake Factory soon and order something new and different next time? By offering so many choices The Cheesecake Factory can’t lose. Either their food really excites you, or you want to come back and try your luck again.
In the same shopping center is another restaurant called The Village Tavern, which operates with a totally different dining philosophy. Do a few things, and do them all quite well. Their menu fits nicely on one side of a single sheet. Diners invariably flip it over, only to find nothing. I’ve dined there many times, and I still flip the menu over. It’s very hard to shake the feeling of “surely this can’t be all of it”, no matter how many times you assure yourself that it’s all steaks and straight forward American cooking.
There are no hidden pastas, Mexican, or Asian offerings, and certainly no fusions of different ethnic styles, but as I look back over years of dining out I remember enjoying more meals at Village Tavern than at Cheesecake Factory. There is an anxiety-free comfort in ordering meat and potatoes with a starter salad or soup. And I’m not likely to sneak a bite of my wife’s salmon, only to find I like it more than the prime rib I ordered. At Village Tavern the menu is no different than one you might have seen back in the days when blue jeans meant you had a choice of Levi’s, Wrangler, or Lee. It is tasty food combined with the reassurance that I can make a perfect selection from a list of excellent but limited options. No need to stress out. My ordering skills are on par with any diner in the city.