I don’t know about you, but I am tired…like all the time. I get plenty of rest – and I don’t seem more stressed by work or my home life than normal. Yet, I am mentally exhausted. Maybe it’s the events of the world that have taken over my headspace. Between COVID, the war in Ukraine, soaring inflation, and any number of other “outside” factors, it would make sense that I might feel some effects mentally. Then again, it could be something more or even something else entirely – something that often goes unnoticed and gets very little attention: decision fatigue.
What is decision fatigue?
The phenomena of decision fatigue, the inability to make decisions due to a constant state of mental overload, is not new having been discovered by scientists nearly 20 years ago. It’s something that we all face as human beings every minute of every day. We make lots of decisions – more than 35,000 every day – decisions on what to wear in the morning, what to eat, what tasks to get done, what to buy at the grocery store, whether to answer the phone, when to respond on social media, where to park the car, how long to spend in the shower, and the list goes on and on and on. All those decisions – large or small, conscious or subconscious – take a toll on us mentally and emotionally leading to feelings of anxiety, stress, even depression.
And there is evidence that the decision-making process is getting harder – with even greater levels of fatigue – due to our increasingly complex world. The main driver behind this is COVID. Psychologists have noted that the pandemic has presented us with choices we have never had to consider or make before. COVID has brought a new level of uncertainty which pervades nearly every aspect of our lives and impacts our ability to effectively gather information and make decisions.
The effects of decision fatigue on consumers
This certainly affects consumer buying behavior, which typically involves a lot of intricate mental and emotional steps including the evaluation of cost-benefits and trade-offs, among others. With ever more complexity in our decision process, the level of fatigue has grown proportionally. But what does that mean for a consumer? It means that they will be more likely to suffer negative effects of decision fatigue which include going with the easiest option (regardless of other factors), making more impulsive choices, making poor or bad choices, or even making no choices at all (decision paralysis). In addition, decision fatigue can also impact consumer sentiment – frustration and even anger over difficult buying decisions that may damage the consumer-brand relationship and overall experience.
I was involved in a study recently where we were evaluating the shopability of a certain product category in home improvement stores. I recall a woman standing in the aisle looking at the variety of products and saying, “I never knew there were this many choices. I wouldn’t know where to begin to figure out which one is best for my needs. I mean, my head already hurts, and I haven’t even started.” She later said she would have likely walked out of the store and not purchased anything if she were shopping for real. In addition, she expressed that she was annoyed with the product manufacturers and the retail store for not making her decision process easier. The result? No sale – along with negative perceptions of the product and the retailer (which erodes their equity with this particular consumer).
This is not an isolated experience. As a market and consumer researcher, I have seen the same thing play out in any number of categories from shampoo to bread to software and automobiles. In an effort to give consumers choices and options, brands (in some cases) are doing themselves a disservice by creating undue complexity in the decision-making process, which hurts the consumer buying experience.
Think about the last time you bought toothpaste. I recently counted over a dozen different toothpaste options (or SKUs) for one single brand in my local grocery store. Standing there in the aisle trying to figure out whether I want more whitening or tartar control or maybe something with a combination of oral care benefits was a daunting affair. I was there for 10 minutes at least – and never did feel confident in what I ended up getting. And if I am being honest, I felt like I wasted valuable time and mental energy trying to make what should have been a relatively easy decision.
How to improve customer experience
Marketers and brands need to think about this carefully when launching products and optimizing their product portfolios. There are a few things they could do to help rather than hinder the consumer when it comes to decision-making and the buying experience:
- Keep the number of product SKUs to the bare minimum – and make sure those that are offered have clear differentiation from one another (i.e., clear and compelling consumer benefits)
- Use technology to aid consumer decisions (e.g., Amazon’s “buy again” feature, Netflix’s personalized recommendations for content, Zebra’s short questionnaire to shop and compare insurance products)
- Communicate to consumers when and where they are experiencing relatively less mental fatigue and can more easily absorb important information (not when they are standing in the aisle or at the point of purchase)
- Don’t be afraid to acknowledge the fatigue that people are experiencing – just talking about it in marketing communications makes the consumer feel brands understand and empathize with them, leading to more positive brand perceptions and receptivity to buy.
Who knows? If brands do it right, the next time you buy toothpaste you just might enjoy it!