On the Nature of Choice: An Ex-Waiter's Observations

Years ago, while working in a restaurant that was renowned for it's desserts, I learned first hand the vagaries of choice. For a while we had a chef that insisted we offer only one dessert an evening. Each night he prepared a special and unique sweet and only it was available.

His desserts were fabulous, mind you, second to none. I have literally seen women swoon, health nuts swear off diets and the sourest of first dates turn nearly pornographic at the taste of this man's pastries, mouses and soufflés. Problem was, we almost never sold any of them, perhaps two a night, three if we were busy.

That chef was replaced by another who preferred to run several desserts each evening, sometimes two or three, on big weekends as many as eight. Being the one to describe and serve the sweets to the guests, I quickly found that four was the optimal number. With four dessert options I could sell one to nearly half of all my guests. And, I should note that this second chef's confections, while still excellent, did not approach those of his predecessor. However, with each dessert offered above four, a predictable portion of guests would forgo that last course. By the time we got to seven or eight, we were back where we had been with the previous chef, selling only a handful of deserts each evening.

Granted, this is not a rigorous study, but I did see some consistent trends over hundreds of evenings that I'm certain most servers at that level can corroborate from their own experience. First, the more options there were, above four, the less likely a guest was to want one. Most often this seemed to be because they couldn't hold more than four descriptions in their head at once and if I had to go back and explain the first one a second time, they'd have forgotten the fifth by the time I was done. People don't like mental discomfort and they don't like feeling stupid so they'd just give up and go without.

Second, the more similar the options, the less likely the guests were to differentiate between them. If we offered an apple tart and a pear tart or a Napoleon beside a custard puff, the two combined would sell about as many as any one of the others. This also held true for items that were similar in appearance even if they were vastly different confections.

Third, discounting deserts that are already well known in English like Bûche de Noël and Napoleon, the more involved the French name, the less likely they were to sell. This could be mitigated if I could ground the idea of the desert in their mind, make it somehow familiar. For instance, "This is the Matignon, a flowerless chocolate cake named for the French Presidential Mansion.* Think Mansion, Matignon." Desserts with lengthy names that made no sense in English or that, were you fluent in French, were a humorous reference to the chef's girlfriend's vagina** never sold so well.

Finally, I could always sell more of a particular dessert if, immediately after describing it, pointed to it and said, "that's my favorite." By highlighting one option as superior, I essentially eliminated choice from the whole equation and I would sell twice as many of that particular desert than of any other, regardless of which one I chose to indicate.

The moral being that people, at least Americans that eat in French bistros, like choice, or rather they like the idea of choice. What they don't like is having to evaluate something for more than a few seconds. That feels like work. If they have to struggle to remember it, struggle to understand it, struggle to differentiate it from it's counterpart, they'll just as soon choose not to choose at all. Savvy salespeople know this and can manipulate the decision making process of their customers with great virtuosity and usually with the customer believing that they have made a rational, entirely self-determined choice from the word go. Put simply, our choices are rarely our own; remember that the next time you buy something.

* Actually Hôtel Matignon is the residence of the French Prime Minister but that doesn't bear explaining to most Americans.

** I'm not making that up. We had no less than a half dozen desserts with names that meant "the two petaled flower I only see at night" or somesuch.

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Rakanuj said...


X = 4?

Anonymous said...

That's interesting Thomas. I dislike large menus that run to several pages, three or four choices are enough for me too

Tom Harper said...

Interesting first-hand observations about the human psyche. Makes sense too.