Decision Paralysis in Hawker Centre

Singapore is a tremendous place for foodie. I am especially fond of the concept of Hawker centres. For those unfamiliar, they are open air food complexes serving great but inexpensive food. I try to visit new stalls and new centres every week and try out new dishes.

In the beginning, my knowledge of local dishes was fairly limited. I wanted to test out new food, but as the hawker stall can be quite hectic place especially during the lunch hour, I nearly always made similar order (prawn noodles, to be precise). So after getting worried about my diet getting too monotonous, I made a simple rule to guide my lunch decision-making:

Only buy from Hawker stalls which sell only one food item.

The reasoning was two-folded:

1. If stall can make living by only selling one dish, the dish must be pretty good.

2. When you have only one alternative, your decision process is quite straightforward.

What I experienced on the stalls offering too many alternatives, was decision paralysis. And many times I still experience that. So it is probably me blocking the queue at the stall when not able to make my mind up between Mee Siam and Mee Rebus. Sorry.

The more you give alternatives to customer, the more difficult it is to make the decision and more likely that customer sticks to his learned formula of behavior. So if you have accustomed to eat chicken rice, the more new alternatives you get the more likely you are to stick with that chicken rice.

This raises couple of issues to companies. If you have only one product, the customer selection is definitely easy. It is also easy to decide against your product. So you have to have variety to address different target audience needs. However, the more you add alternatives the more difficult the selection becomes. In FMCG this usually also results to product cannibalization. The category variants do not take market share from competitor products but actually eat up the market share of your core product. Companies have to provide variety but also easy decision at the same time. Below are couple of tips to overcome this paradox.

How you can help clients to overcome decision paralysis?

1. Recommend

How many times have you taken Chef´s Special in the restaurant? If customer seems hesitant, ask and recommend. Whether you are hawker stall owner or webstore, you are also expert of your products. Highlight that expertise and make qualified recommendation to your client.

2. Show popularity

When showing Top 5 of the most popular dishes, the probabilities are quite high that the customer selects  some of them. Or just check the most popular media sites, they are always highlighting the most read stories. Popularity is a cue of superiority and it helps to make decisions.

3. Encourage word-of-mouth

Only times when I have varied from my hawker stall selection criteria was when I had recommendation from my friend or read a story about certain stall or dish on Straits Times. There is no shortcut for positive feedback. You have to provide good experience and the word-of-mouth will follow. In digital sphere you can make recommendations more visible with social media integration (showing Facebook likes, comments, FourSquare check-ins or Twitter updates regarding your company).

4. Help customer to apply his decision making rules

“I always buy the cheapest”, “I always buy the most expensive”, “I always try the new dish” or “I always eat beef on Fridays”. These are some of the rules your customer might use when selecting products. When you highlight those different motivational triggers, you make your customers selection easier. To exactly know the motivation and the rules for your customers, it requires constant monitoring and research of customer habits.

5.  Help customer to make one choice at a time

Some of the decisions are not always easy. There might be thousands of alternatives. Or there might be only couple of alternatives, but thousands different parameters affecting your choice. Especially with more complicated products, it helps if you break the decision to different parts. It is hard to make buying decision right away, but you can always take steps closer to it. Decision making in elections is great example of this, finding the right candidate requires variety of questions affecting various different categories (example: Republican primaries 2012).

Nowadays as I have learned more about different dishes I have ventured to stalls offering more variety. But even then I utilize one simple rule:

Always go to the stalls with the longest queue.

“More choice does not necessarily correlate with more business”

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