The human brain can’t contend with the vastness of online shopping.
In theory, Amazon is a site meant to serve the needs of humans. The megaretailer’s boundless inventory gives people easy access to household supplies and other everyday products that are rarely fun to shop for. Most people probably aren’t eager to buy clothes hangers, for instance. They just want to have hangers when they need them.
But when you type “hangers” into Amazon’s search box, the mega-retailer delivers “over 200,000” options. On the first page of results, half are nearly identical velvet hangers, and most of the rest are nearly identical plastic. They don’t vary much by price, and almost all of the listings in the first few pages of results have hundreds or thousands of reviews that average out to ratings between four and five stars. Even if you have very specific hanger needs and preferences, there’s no obvious choice. There are just choices.
The phenomenon repeats for almost all of the everyday objects Amazon carries: phone chargers, water bottles, flat-panel televisions. And it’s not just Amazon. The global-manufacturing apparatus now has the capacity to churn out near-endless stuff. The industry’s output has ballooned 75 percent to $35 trillion since 2007, according to one analysis, and millions of livelihoods depend on its continued growth.
Over that same period of time, Amazon’s success has pushed retailers like Walmart and Target to carry even more stuff—especially online—and to get that stuff to shoppers even faster. The internet-shopping boom has spawned an excess-stuff economy, where retailers like Overstock buy up extra product from full-price retailers. In the case of dropshippers, websites don’t even need to have stuff to sell it: Wayfair, for example, lists thousands of products in scores of categories, but keeps almost no inventory. Instead, manufacturers ship directly to consumers, which helps keep stuff prices down.
It’s tempting to see this ever-expanding variety and choice as advantageous to consumers. The economic theory that governs many Americans’ understanding of consumer choice posits that a free, competitive market should drive down prices on the best quality stuff. But in the arms race to sell as many sandwich bags or beach towels as possible, a problem has become clear: Variety isn’t infinitely valuable.
Contemporary internet shopping conjures a perfect storm of choice anxiety. Research has consistently held that people who are presented with a few options make better, easier decisions than those presented with many. It has also shown that having many options is particularly confounding when the information available on them is limited or confusing—as with an endless list of virtually identical hangers. To be fair, it’s not entirely clear what information would even be helpful for efficiently evaluating dozens of similar hangers. The 32 velvet options on the first page of results probably aren’t distinct from each other in any significant way, except for color and how many hangers come in a package. (Amazon did not respond to a request for comment on the expanse of its offerings.)
Those infinite, meaningless options can result in something like a consumer fugue state. After shopping online, I often don’t remember days later whether I actually made a decision or not, and I regularly pause at the mountain of Amazon boxes next to my apartment building’s elevators to glance at the names on the labels, just to see if I forgot to expect something. Often, one of my neighbors is there doing it with me. Usually, both of us get on the elevator without boxes.
Helping consumers figure out what to buy amid an endless sea of choice online has become a cottage industry unto itself. Many brands and retailers now wield marketing buzzwords like curation, differentiation, and discovery as they attempt to sell an assortment of stuff targeted to their ideal customer. Companies find such shoppers through the data gold mine of digital advertising, which can catalog people by gender, income level, personal interests, and more. Since Americans have lost the ability to sort through the sheer volume of the consumer choices available to them, there now has to be a ghost in the retail machine, whether it’s an algorithm, an influencer, or some snazzy ad tech to help a product follow you around the internet.
Indeed, choice fatigue is one reason so many people gravitate toward lifestyle influencers on Instagram—the relentlessly chic young moms and perpetually vacationing 20-somethings—who present an aspirational worldview, and then recommend the products and services that help achieve it. Once you find a couple influencers whose taste you like, they do the work of winnowing down all the available options to just those that adhere to a particular sensibility. Although influencers often accept money from brands or retailers to endorse certain products, many also make a considerable portion of their income simply by recommending products they think their followers will like and then taking a cut of any sales made via the purchase link they provide.
Review sites like the ultra-popular Wirecutter function on a related principle, but for stuff that isn’t as fun to look at: A staff of people tests out different products to see which ones they like the best for a given purpose, and then they present their reasoning, along with an affiliate link to the winner that gives the site a cut of any sales. Review videos, too, are popular on YouTube, and plenty of niche websites perform similar functions for products that serve a particular interest, like hiking or photography. Because these reviews can feel more authoritative and unbiased than reviews hosted by retailers themselves (which are somewhat frequently exposed as compromised), consumers have flocked to them for guidance on products like air purifiers and vacuums.
For a relatively new class of consumer-products start-ups, there’s another method entirely. Instead of making sense of a sea of existing stuff, these companies claim to disrupt stuff as Americans know it. Casper (mattresses), Glossier (makeup), Away (suitcases), and many others have sprouted up to offer consumers freedom from choice: The companies have a few aesthetically pleasing and supposedly highly functional options, usually at mid-range prices. They’re selling nice things, but maybe more importantly, they’re selling a confidence in those things, and an ability to opt out of the stuff rat race.
The most successful of these companies take in hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue. They have a strong precedent for believing that their type of extreme curation is what consumers want: Trader Joe’s sells many times fewer products than most of its suburban grocery-store competitors, but still tops consumers’ rankings of their favorite places to grocery shop.
Thousand-dollar mattresses and $300 suitcases might solve choice anxiety for a certain tier of consumer, but the companies that sell them, along with those that attempt to massage the larger stuff economy into something navigable, are still just working within a consumer market that’s broken in systemic ways. The presence of so much stuff in America might be more valuable if it were more evenly distributed, but stuff’s creators tend to focus their energies on those who already have plenty. As options have expanded for people with disposable income, the opportunity to buy even basic things like fresh food or quality diapers has contracted for much of America’s lower classes.
For start-ups that promise accessible simplicity, their very structure still might eventually push them toward overwhelming variety. Most of those companies are based on hundreds of millions of dollars of venture capital, the investors of which tend to expect a steep growth rate that can’t be achieved by selling one great mattress or one great sneaker. Casper has expanded into bedroom furniture and bed linens. Glossier, after years of marketing itself as no-makeup makeup that requires little skill to apply, recently launched a full line of glittering color cosmetics. There may be no way to opt out of stuff by buying into the right thing.