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The Variety of an Assortment

Hoch, Stephen J. , Eric L. Bradlow, and Brian Wansink (1999). The Variety of Assortment. Marketing Science, Vol. 18:4, 527–546. doi: 10.1287/mksc.18.4.527

Variety matters. You don't like eating the same food for every meal all month long, and you don't like stores that carry only a very selective choice. You want variety – especially if you haven't already decided exactly what it is you want.

A study by the Food and Brand Lab found that customers value variety of assortment almost as much as location and price when giving reasons why they patronize their favorite stores. The study, published in Marketing Science , included over 150 consumers and looked at how assortment affects customer perception of variety*.

Consumers either think holistically (the way artists think, taking in the whole picture) or analytical (the way mathematicians think, focusing in on the details). The way a consumers think affects how they shop and the factors that are important to them. The study found that most consumers are analytical thinkers who thrive on organization. It doesn't matter if two stores have exactly the same items – if one is more organized consumers will perceive it as having more variety to choose from.

Variety is important to consumers for a lot of reasons but a large part of it is because they feel that they are more likely to find what they want when going to a store that offers more varied assortments. They want more to choose from.

"The more variety someone has, the less they're going to feel forced into making a poor decision," said Dr. Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. "Consumers want different items, they want variety. "

The study found that people are influenced by the variety a store offers – the more variety they have, the more the customer likes the store. But displays of items are important too and researchers found that an organized display seems to offer more of a perception of variety for most U.S. consumers.

"People are more satisfied with and more likely to choose stores that carry assortments that offer a high variety of products and are organized rather than displayed randomly," Wansink said. "It's not enough to have a lot of one item, people want a lot of different items and they want to see what you have to offer. "

Surprisingly, those sale bins with all the items jumbled together do not make customers think of variety. The study found that customers like to see what they're being offered; they want an organized display with a lot of variety.

For most consumers, variety ranks right up there with price, location and convenience. Consumers don't want to have to make a choice from one or two options, they want to take everything in and then make a decision. And, the store that offers the variety of assortment is a lot more likely to rank at the top of the customers' list.

*The study was conducted at the University of Illinois, former location of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.