With So Many Choices, No Wonder You Need Help

The future of "mediated shopping"

The New York Times , December 05, 2004

Several years ago, my husband decided to give me a watch for my birthday. To make sure I got one I really liked, he took me to a watch store so I could pick out my favorite.

Big mistake.

I stared at the cases full of watches, several hundred at least, and freaked out. Arranged in no particular order, the watches all looked the same. How could I possibly find the one that was right for me? What had started as a sweet gift suddenly became an intimidating chore.

My husband rescued me. Knowing my taste, he pointed out three or four likely candidates. With a reasonable number to choose from, I quickly selected one.

Whether shopping for watches or jeans, salad greens or bathroom faucets, consumers have many more options than ever before. The variety of choices today gives us a much better chance of finding something that exactly suits our needs, our personalities, our activities and our bodies. We don't have to settle for the lowest common denominator or one size fits all.

But those choices can be overwhelming. Sooner or later, every shopper has an experience like my watch-buying breakdown. Our brains lock up, and we just want to go home. The stress is particularly great when we're buying unfamiliar goods, spending a lot of money or picking out something we'll have to live with for years.

In the book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore College, emphasizes the downside of freedom and variety. "As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded," he writes. "At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize."

Social critics like Professor Schwartz see the plethora of choices today as a market failure — the latest sign that commercial capitalism is bad for us. He's nostalgic for the good old days when he didn't expect his jeans to fit perfectly, but it only took five minutes to buy a new pair.

Of course, back then, those of us with less standard figures couldn't find any jeans at all. Giving up variety means making people with unusual tastes or needs much worse off. And nobody is average in every dimension. We all enjoy the ability to personalize our world.

Fortunately, consumers can escape the tyranny of too many choices without sacrificing the pleasure of finding the right match. As options proliferate, so do new forms of mediated shopping — experts and tools that narrow the possibilities to a manageable number of likely candidates.

That's what my husband did with the watches. It's what real estate agents, financial planners, search engines and the recommendation services at and other sites do. Each knows something about us and something about what's available. They don't just reduce the number of options. They do so intelligently, with an eye to what we're most likely to want. They help us be ourselves.

"The options are paralyzing until somebody who knows what they're talking about comes in, and you realize that most things aren't really as good as you think they are," said Kim France, editor in chief of Lucky, a magazine devoted to shopping. "I know it because I know what the clothes are like when they come here." She said that some clothes may be too expensive, or some may be made of inferior material. "These are the things that any woman realizes when she goes shopping," she said.

Lucky itself offers a form of mediated shopping. Readers flip through the magazine at their own pace, much like looking at a Web site or catalog, and mark the items that inspire them. Unlike the artistic but hard-to-make-out portraits of impossibly expensive gowns in traditional fashion magazines, Lucky's photography is "very literal," Ms. France said. Instead of being "about tweed" or "about gold lamé," the fashion articles have practical themes, like how to look chic even when it's freezing.

Yet "the magazine about shopping" never actually talks about going into stores and buying things. Instead, Lucky celebrates today's plenitude of goods, while creating order out of potential chaos. "When we show things on a page, they all make sense on the page together, so you're not looking at this crazy mix," Ms. France said. "It's all been edited."

For Lucky's audience, shopping is fun — and frequent. Choices are more stressful when they're infrequent, expensive and emotionally charged. That's when we really need mediated shopping, if only to give us someone besides ourselves to blame if things go wrong.

Hence, the rise of wedding planners, a profession that barely existed 20 years ago. As the constraints of tradition have loosened and the bridal market has produced more alternatives for everything from invitations to limousines, weddings have gotten more complex and personalized. "Everybody is looking for that little twist," said Salli Goldstein, a wedding consultant in Dallas.

"The cookie cutter is gone," said Gerard J. Monaghan, president of the Association of Bridal Consultants, an industry group in New Milford, Conn., whose membership has grown to 4,000 this year from 27 in 1981. He estimates that there are about 10,000 wedding consultants practicing in the United States, a tenfold increase over 25 years.

While some brides hire a wedding planner simply to keep track of the details or to recommend reliable vendors (itself a form of mediated shopping), others need creative guidance. "Many brides have no idea what is possible for their wedding, and a good wedding consultant can help them define and realize their dream," said Joanne M. Kersten of Le Glacé Events in Dallas.

Defining and realizing a dream — and particularly a dream home — is the plot of many television makeover shows. While they are largely fantasy, especially when it comes to time and budget, they reflect a changing reality. These days, the average person has home décor choices once available only to the wealthy and well connected.

"The days of only through the trade, those have been pretty much eclipsed," said H. Don Bowden, an architect and interior designer in Mobile, Ala., and the former president of the American Society of Interior Designers. Interior designers act less like gatekeepers, earning commissions by marking up products, and more like consultants, helping clients make satisfying choices and getting paid directly for their time and talent.

"Our clients come to us armed with more information," Mr. Bowden said. "But that's also part of their problem — that they're too informed. So what they want is someone to tell them what questions to ask."

Andy Bowman, an engineer and consultant in Fairhope, Ala., and one of Mr. Bowden's clients, says he and his wife do much of their shopping online. "All you've got to do is type in `sink,' and you get 90,000 choices," he said. That sounds overwhelming, but Mr. Bowman says that the couple narrowed the options by specifying "a double sink with a built-in drainboard."

Once they made their selection, Mr. Bowman said, "We would use Don as a source of affirmation," asking whether the feature would work well in the house. "Don was great at being able to say yes and no very quickly and plainly."

This intersection of high-tech shopping and high-touch reassurance has transformed Faith Sheridan's interior design practice since she moved to Portland, Ore., from Omaha three years ago. Busy young professional couples who do their research online find her through the referral service of the American Society for Interior Designers or her own Web site.

"They are comfortable with hiring a quote-unquote professional to guide them," Ms. Sheridan said, "just as they would hire an accountant or they would hire a financial planner — people who have specific training. They look to a designer to guide them in these purchases."