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The Choice Paradox: Why More is Less

Growing up in Canada, I never questioned why there were, for example, 20+ brands of cereal at the supermarket. Not only were there 20+ established brands, but new ones seemed to pop up all the time. New cereal didn't stay "new" for long. It wasn’t until I was at a small shop in rural Tanzania that I questioned the value of having as many choices as we do for nearly everything in our lives. I had one choice of cereal in Tanzania. I bought it and was happy with my choice. It's not like I could have chosen differently anyway.

From restaurant menus, to what car we want to buy, to what career we want to pursue, to skincare brands, the options are seemingly endless. Most of us have probably been brought up with the belief that more choice is beneficial to our lives. But what effect does all this choice have on our mental state and are we even aware of it? And what does this mean for shops like ours and the beauty industry as a whole?

It’s time to rethink what society tells us about choice. We’re huge fans of Barry Schwartz, an American professor of psychology, who proposed the paradox of choice theory. He has a famous TED Talk which you can watch here. According to Schwartz, the dominant belief in Western industrial societies is that we maximize our freedom by maximizing choice; the more choice we have, the more freedom we have, and the more welfare we have. The uncomfortable truth is that too much choice actually results in paralysis. When we’re presented with too many options, it becomes difficult to choose anything. Schwartz posits that even when we overcome this paralysis, we end up less satisfied with our choice. Why does this happen? Schwartz explains that if whatever you choose is not perfect, it’s easy to imagine how you would have been able to get something even better. Even if what you chose is great, your internal dialogue will consume you: “If only I had made a better choice.”

It’s easy to imagine the great features of the options you didn’t choose. Through his research Schwartz found that with the availability of more choice your expectations about how good something is actually increase. You might end up with something “good” but it will never seem “perfect” because your expectations are far too high. The expectation of perfection is characteristic of affluent industrial societies. When there were fewer options, a new product or experience provided an element of surprise, usually a pleasant one. No longer are we ever surprised. According to Schwartz, all we can do is hope that the things we choose are as good as we expected them to be.

Imagine you’re shopping for a cleanser. You go to the store and there is only one option. You buy it, and you’re disappointed with the product. In a case like this it’s clear who is to blame – the skincare brand for making a bad product, or the shop for not offering alternatives. If there are hundreds of cleansers and you’re disappointed with what you got, it’s equally clear in this case who is to blame – you. There were 100 choices and YOU picked the wrong product. So what happens? You end up feeling bad about, not just your choice, but yourself. I’m sure everyone has experienced something like this before.

So what is the magic number? According to Schwartz:

Some choice is better than none; however, more choice is worse than some.

There must be a perfect amount of choice, but Schwartz admits he doesn’t know what that is, and neither do we.

What does the choice paradox mean for the beauty industry and shops like ours? The global beauty industry is oversaturated. There are approximately 500 brands dedicated to skincare alone. Many sell different versions of the same products but with different claims and prices (source). We don’t buy into many of these claims (for example, the benefits of gold flakes or blue light protection). We believe that a minimalist routine with basic steps like cleansing, moisturizing, SPF, and the occasional treatment is the most beneficial for the skin. You can read about our "skip-care" philosophy here.

We don’t know what the “right” amount of choice is. We’re trying to make choosing for customers easier by carefully selecting the brands we offer, and having what we think is a reasonable selection of products for each skin type. We have no intentions of becoming an online Myeong-dong. Life is stressful enough without having to worry whether or not you chose the perfect serum.

In our early development stage, we noticed most of the skincare shops we came across aspired to offer more brands, not fewer. They wanted to give customers more choice, and lure them with the promise of a constant influx of new products. What we now know, thanks to Barry Schwarz’s research, is that this isn’t what we should be aspiring to. Sinless Skincare wants happy customers – not stressed customers, internally disappointed with their choice. We believe that each of our brands has a reason to be in our shop. We’re not perfect and our product selection process is still evolving. We might swap out one brand for another. But we will surely never drastically increase our brand options. At the end of the day, we believe less is more, and we hope you do too.

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