The age of anxiety and why too much choice is a bad thing

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Giving a customer too many options can lead to procrastination and even paralysis in the booking process. Tom Bacon reports

Airlines boast of new travel options: customer choice is at an unprecedented level! Airline passengers now have the choice of a variety of products including new ‘basic economy’ and relatively new ‘Premium Economy’. They have dozens of ancillary choices (carry-on bag, checked bag, travel insurance, lounge access, reserved seating, priority boarding, and so on). ‘Have it your way’ appears to be the new strategy, no longer ‘one size fits all’. Shouldn’t this new strategy drive greater customer satisfaction?

Instead of increased satisfaction, however, this dizzying menu of choices often results in increased anxiety. Such anxiety from too much choice often leads to increased procrastination in travel decision-making. Michael Kraabel of Bolin Marketing presented the following formula at a recent travel conference:

[Too many choices}  +  [Too little time]  +  [Uncertainty] 

=>  [Stress&Anxiety] 

=>  [Paralysis]!

Effectively, Kraabel argued that giving customers too much choice can be counterproductive; that it can lead to customers avoiding making any decision and not purchasing your product.                                   

Making recommendations

The solution to potential paralysis, of course, is not to return to a ‘one size fits all’. Instead, e-merchandisers need to help customers by making choices for them. More personalised offerings can be built on understanding not just that people have different needs (which leads to product/choice proliferation) but what people have different needs (which product best meets this individual customer’s needs?).

A simple approach to this is recommendations: ‘People who bought X, also bought Y.’ 

Giving suggestions based on trip details or information you have about the customer and his habits can help a customer more easily navigate all of the choices. Some choices are, obviously, more compelling for certain travellers than others, so it helps to feature those alternatives prominently for the right customer group.

‘Branded fares’ or new bundles of features

Branded fares, too, are a way for airlines to ‘make choices’ for their customers. The choice, in the case of branded fares, is a rebundling of ancillary features that can appeal most to certain customer segments. Of course, airlines that have developed branded fares still offer all of the options that those without branded fares have. But branded fares, however, give customers a simplified choice that includes multiple ancillary features and can preclude having to make so many choices.

Both recommendations and branded fares are ways for e-merchandisers to help customers understand and purchase the ancillary features they specifically value, without having to follow a generic path cluttered with options that are of no interest. Both represent an expedited way for customers to navigate ‘choice’.

Personalised booking paths

If an e-merchandiser can develop an easier way for each market segment to select the features he values, ‘paralysis’ can potentially be eliminated. Instead of having to explicitly decide on up to a dozen parameters/features, each of which is attractive only to a subset of passengers, a more individualised booking path would help customers find and select the optimal travel experience. All of the options would remain but the booking path would vary between different customer segments, based on the likelihood that they would find certain ancillary features attractive. Rather than force all passengers to explicitly decide yes or no on each choice in a fixed sequence, each customer would be presented with the most likely features first. The customer would then decide whether or not to continue to see more options. Effectively, the system would make choices for the customer, helping them better manage the new complexity.

Unfortunately, too often increased customer stress and anxiety have accompanied the new orientation to ancillary features and supposed ‘choice’. The ‘have it your way’ philosophy can drive customers to delay bookings, to procrastinate because of increased uncertainty – or to turn to booking sites that appear easier to use. By making choices for customers, however, travel merchandisers can make choices less overwhelming. All e-merchandisers need to make certain choices for their customers; they should develop easier, more personalised, processes for different customers or segments.

Tom Bacon has been in the business for 25 years, as an airline veteran and industry consultant in revenue optimisation. He leads audit teams for airline commercial activities including revenue management, scheduling and fleet planning. Email Tom or visit his website

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