My Fear of Missing Out

04 September 2017

Michelle Norman explores the perils of decision-making in a world of endless choice…

One thing you should know about me is that I’m an acute sufferer of FOMO – otherwise known as the ‘Fear of Missing Out’.  I think it stemmed from my childhood and being the youngest of 3 children.  We always had to share, and my parents would rotate which one of us got to divide the spoils.  That person would also be the last to choose their own portion, so you had to get it right.  I remember watching my brother spending hours cutting a cake to make sure each slice was perfectly equal.  As a result, missing out was instilled in me as something to be avoided at all costs.

My condition has a big impact on my purchasing behaviour – and I know I’m not alone… In an environment of limited choice, FOMO is a brand’s best friend.  My FOMO-induced purchases have included a one-off, vinyl embossed , 1950’s Del Boy cocktail bar for my house, a unique antique bed at a great price (that sadly turned out to from a doll’s house), and endless items from Duty Free simply because, well, they’re duty free. 

But when choices proliferate, as they do in our information society, FOMO can have the opposite effect.  After all, how can I commit to one car, one holiday or even one perfect party frock, when there could be something better out there for me?  And if I don’t have time to analyse the myriad of choices I’m presented with – and let’s face it, who does – then it’s often easier to buy nothing at all. 

Some of you here may have heard of the jam experiment, back in 1995?  To summarise it in a nutshell, customers were presented with 2 different displays of jam; one had 24 flavours and the other had just 6.  When stopping to taste the jams, the display with 24 jams attracted more customers but when it came to making an actual purchase, there was a big difference.  From the table of 6 jams, 11% made a purchase.  From the table of 24 jams, it was just two per cent.  The clear message here was that, even though consumers allegedly want more choice, too much choice makes it too hard for them to commit.  The jam study has been criticised more recently for failing to take into account factors like the importance of the purchase decision and the consumers’ familiarity with the category – and those are very fair critiques – but the central premise is hard to dispute.

I’m a natural adventurer and holidays are my thing, and the internet has made so many opportunities available to us.  But, for me, the risk of not making the best possible choice for my holiday leaves me completely paralysed.  And don’t be deceived: all 5 star hotels are not the same.  Ratings are wildly abundant and inconsistent – and even if they weren’t, I’m putting my holiday choice in the hands of complete strangers.   I’ve been burned many times in my quest for the perfect stay.  Once, after endlessly Googling and studying reviews, I booked the best suite in a boutique country hotel for an anniversary, only to arrive and find I was staying in a prefab annexe where breakfast was a long life roll and a pack of butter in the fridge.  Another time, after months of searching, I found an online deal offering Nirvana on a Butlin’s budget in Cyprus.  My whole family and I arrived at the kind of hotel you immediately want to leave.  There followed a trek around Cyprus to find an alternative, in peak season, and we ended up paying double the pre-deal cost of the holiday.  After that I kept thinking, I really need someone to funnel all this information for me, who would do something like that?  And it struck me: oh yeah, a travel agent… We think differently now, but does that mean we get a better deal?  Are we happier?  Or do we need a helping hand…?

I think so.  Once I was given the gift of a session with a personal stylist who hit me with the message, “These were fine 10 years ago when they were in style and you were thinner”.  I ended up with a whole new wardrobe, and whilst it hit my wallet and my pride, it was a revelation to have someone who could make sensible, rational, informed choices on my behalf.

Obviously having a permanent stylist or butler or personal assistant isn’t an option for most of us.  And not everyone behaves like me, so we can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach.  But choice paralysis is a reality that today’s customers are facing.  I believe that the brands that address this, the ones that genuinely help make consumers’ lives easier and better, are the ones that will flourish.   

Michelle Norman
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