You can't always get what you want, as the song goes but, to be honest, these days you generally can. After all, when it comes to the supermarket the consumer has become like a spoiled child in a sweetshop, denied virtually nothing. Is this a good thing? Some will argue that there's no such thing as too much choice and indeed the Consumers' Association champions that notion. As a spokesman says: "We're always in favour of greater choice for the consumer." Certainly demand has risen, with consumers expecting a far more diverse range of choice from their local supermarket than in the past. Asda's brand manager for own label Jon Smythe says this is down to changes in society. "People see things on television and there's a great deal more exposure. We also travel a lot more and people get to try new things. When they come home they demand them from their retailers." In response to that demand, or maybe fuelling it, supermarkets have consistently increased their range, with some operators offering more than 40,000 skus, and, in Safeway's case, doubling its range over the past five years. But while it's known that most consumers will state a preference for increased choice when they're questioned, they still want convenience and speed, and if they must also spend time agonising over exactly which type of mustard to get, the two do not sit well together. "We are lazy shoppers," says PriceWaterhouseCoopers consultant Helen Morris. "We just want to go in and pick it up without having to think too hard." She says that one fear is that if shoppers are faced with too much choice they will give up and buy nothing, although the reverse can be true, she adds. "If you don't have the product they want they might not choose the alternative either." This certainly presents something of a dilemma for retailers: stock too much and put people off, or stock less and still lose sales. It's certainly true that it would be a difficult task for a retailer to reduce its offering to the customer. "Consumers have become accustomed to having a wide range of choice," says Paul Buckley, a lecturer in marketing and psychology at Bristol College of Business. "They have been led to expect a wide range of choices. If they are not offered that, their dissatisfaction is reflected onto the retailer." So would retailers really want to cut back their selections? Cake manufacturer Manor Bakeries says they do and cites overcrowding in its own category. Will Shaw, director of customer strategy development, says: "The cake sector has around 7,000 SKUs, which is one of the highest counts in the grocery sector. Our research has told us that people are baffled by the complexity and find it a difficult and confusing category to shop because it is over-ranged." Shaw says that although most consumers will say yes when asked if they want more choice, endless choice is not a good thing if they are unable to get precisely what they want. "The more products you have on the shelf, the less space each one has and that makes it harder for retailers to keep the shelves stocked." And of course this leads to missed sales and, with more range on the shelf, to increased wastage. And all of that adds up to the double whammy of unhappy customers and increased costs for the retailer. A bigger range can also change customer behaviour, says Buckley. "The bigger the choice, the more finicky the consumer becomes." He says tests have shown that offering consumers a choice of two or three products is fine, but when the choice is increased to 10 and the consumer is then told one is out of stock they become very annoyed, even though they have a far greater choice than before. Shaw is adamant that retailers can benefit from a reduction of their cake range. "We've done some tests where one retailer increases its range and the other simplifies it, and the results were clear." He says the simplified store increased sales and found there was improved customer perception of the category. "People found it much easier and so there were real benefits to the retailer." However, Shaw adds that the approach may not apply to all sectors within grocery. "It's horses for courses, obviously and I think it does depend on what life stage the category is at." The age of the category is an important factor when it comes to a choice saturation point. Safeway communications director Kevin Hawkins agrees that in some areas there is little room for expansion. "When it comes to choice, perhaps in the ambient sector we've gone as far as we can go, but there's still plenty of room for more choice in the fresh and ready meal category." Certainly categories such as ambient and frozen are shrinking to make way for the new stars of the grocery industry, so while choice increases in some areas, it is narrowing in others. Even retailers themselves are stripping down their offerings in order to vary their store format into areas such as convenience stores. But with companies constantly developing new products, can the supermarket shelves and the shoppers cope under the weight? Are we entering choice overload? Hawkins doesn't think so. "There's a constant churn. Don't forget that for all the new products going out, there's a constant stream of products going the other way. A lot of new product launches fail." Space of course, is another big issue ­ retailers find it tougher to build new, big, stores and with many of their ambitions lying in the direction of non food, are we likely to see choice sacrificed in the bid for more shelf space? It seems unlikely that consumers will accept any reduction in choice, although we have seen what appears to be successful moves by companies like P&G and Unilever to reduce the number of brands they offer. Does all this mean the consumer is going to find choice restricted? Not according to Oliver Benzecry, a partner with Accenture. "Consumers' needs are going up, not down. Their expectations have been fuelled by what the retailers have offered them and they are demanding more." So in effect retailers have created their own monster, and to deny their customers continued choice could be a disastrous move. Another factor to bear in mind is that while to the individual consumer the typical supermarket range of 20,000 SKUs may seem excessive, Benzecry points out that each store can be serving up to 25,000 households. "If each household is purchasing a different repertoire of 200 SKUs then the supermarket must carry a broad range to meet all those needs." And as Asda's Smythe says, it's rapidly becoming the case that there's no such thing as the average household these days, which makes choice a difficult beast to master. But you can't please all the people all the time and does having to carry such a wide range really have a negative effect on consumers? Not according to Robert East, professor of consumer behaviour at Kingston Business School. "All consumers have a regular repertoire of brands and they're good at excluding the brands they don't want. Having a massive choice doesn't necessarily faze the person because humans are good at ignoring things they're not interested in." So even if choice increases exponentially, it doesn't necessarily mean people are going to collapse in a heap of nervous exhaustion on every shopping trip. And perhaps with different presentations shoppers' varied needs can be catered for. As Benzecry points out: "You can have formats within formats, a multi-formatted store which has convenience for those who want it and other areas for those who want more from the store." So overall, we have yet to reach any saturation point with choice. After all, the supermarkets will not stock items that customers aren't buying and if they're offering too much it would soon become apparent through high wastage. And at the end of the day, as the Jam sang, the public gets what the public wants, or as Asda's Smythe puts it: "Our objective is to give the customer what they want." n {{COVER FEATURE }}