How the psychology of choice helps to personalise the menu

Wow, {{ count }} of you have read this

brunch menu chalk board

In Kamila Sitwell’s soon to be published ‘Bespoke. How to radically grow your bar and restaurant business through personalisation’ she discusses how understanding the psychology of choice helps to personalise the menu and enhance the customer experience.

How psychology influences choice

In his book The Paradox of Choice, Dr Barry Schwartz divides consumers into two groups based on their decision-making habits:

‘Maximisers’ are perfectionists who agonise over making choices and need to explore each option in great detail before they decide – even if the first option they consider is perfect

‘Satisficers’ make a decision or take action once their basic criteria are met

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to anything in life, so it’s important that restaurants and bars cater to both types by offering straightforward, pragmatic information that includes detailed, appealing descriptions.

Psychologists generally agree that when people have choices, they feel more in control. Leading psychologist Professor Sheena Iyengar, who specialises in understanding why and how humans make the choices they do, tells us that the ability to make choices is ‘essential for an individual’s well-being’. She states that choice is not only the perceived extension of feeling in control, it’s also a biological necessity. Restricting people’s opportunities to choose creates an adverse environment that impacts negatively upon our inner psyche, which has its roots in our need for survival. In short, being able to choose makes us feel happy, which then translates into the power of decision making. If you apply this simple yet powerful psychological concept to a menu, which by its nature facilitates the ability to choose, it’s possible to empower diners by encouraging them to take action.

On a menu, choices need to be clearly indicated within a comparative context so the diner can assess their options and make their choices based on their own preferences. For example, if a diner selects dishes that are advertised as sharing platters, this information motivates their choice and helps feed their unconscious desire to feel in control of their spending. Your menu can direct them towards items you want to promote while remaining within the context of the customer having the power to choose. However, beware of offering too much choice since this may overload your customer’s brain, resulting in poor decision-making that leaves them confused and dissatisfied.

Choice is much more complex than simply listing what food and drink you’re offering. My contention is that if you can gain a deeper understanding of the psychology that lies behind your customers’ decision-making process, it’ll then be possible to target them more effectively by appealing to their own sense of individuality while maximising your potential profits.

Jam display

Sheena Iyengar in her TED talk ‘How to Make Choosing Easier’ refers to a study she conducted at a grocery store in Palo Alto, USA. In a controlled experiment, she discovered that patrons were 33% less likely to stop and sample from a display of six varieties of jam, as opposed to another display of twenty-four varieties. However, the surprise finding was that more customers converted their sampling into actual sales from the display of six varieties. Put simply, when faced with the ‘paradox of choice’ (as defined by the Harvard Business Review), the customer will spend less. Of course, diversity of choice is a different matter altogether, but a detrimental overload isn’t the answer. This fact is borne out by research from Mental Floss, a digital, print and e-commerce media company that focuses on Millennials. Its analysis claims that the ‘golden number’ is seven options per food category: seven appetiser, seven main course and seven dessert options. In my opinion, this is a sensible way forward. As a rule, then, when you’re planning and designing your menu, bear the following in mind:

Cut choices to avoid overwhelming consumers ·

Be honest

Categorise choices to make items easier to find

Be prepared to offer customisation

These are staple requirements of any menu and will remain essential for the foreseeable future.

How customers choose

The choices we make as individuals are not only reflections of our wants and needs, but also our personalities and values. Even when choices are difficult to make, we create the attitudes informing them quickly as we tend to anchor our decisions based around the first piece of information we receive. Our subconscious will react to primers that pique our interest before we arrive at any conscious decision. This isn’t a response we can control, but the primers that stimulate the response can be deliberately triggered. For example, if we walk into a restaurant and there’s a wonderful aroma of steak in the air, this might influence us to order it. Or we might catch the smell of freshly baked pastries from a bakery on our way to a restaurant which gives us a desire to have a tasty, sweet dessert at the end of our meal. Primers, from aromas to sounds and colours, exist all around us, and restaurants regularly use them to inform what choices their customers arrive at. Perhaps the strawberry panna cotta will sell particularly well on the night the staff are wearing red ties.

The study of choices and how we make them in restaurants and bars is an area of increasing interest. Research shows that consumers are subconsciously influenced in their decision making through the use of words and phrases that describe colour, taste and aroma. While the more familiar ‘Daily Specials’ board has a certain pull, complex descriptions which use buzzwords such as ‘hand-reared’ or ‘caramelised’ can increase demand by up to 30%, and can also attract a premium.

Professor Dan Jurafsky, a specialist in computational linguistics from California’s Stanford University, analysed 650,000 dishes across 6,500 restaurant menus, from Michelin-starred establishments to roadside diners. He discovered that a premium could equate to an extra 18 cents/letter when dishes were described using certain words. Typically, more expensively priced menus that emphasised the food’s provenance would use longer words, while cheaper menus employed more basic descriptors such as ‘tasty’.

Choice is so deeply influenced by language that in her research into consumer psychology, Sheena Iyengar conducted a study to determine just how powerful naming could be. She presented participants with two bottles of nail polish and asked them to choose which shade they preferred. Most study participants chose a shade named ‘Adorable’ when presented with label-free bottles. However, when the women knew the names of the polish, the majority chose the opposite shade, named ‘Ballet Slippers’. Something as simple as a name completely changed the consumers’ choice.

Clearly, then, choosing the perfect names for the items on your menu is essential, with language being as important as the food in enticing your customers to spend more.

The above is an extract from Kamila Sitwell’s upcoming book “Bespoke. How to radically grow your bar and restaurant business through personalisation”.  For more analysis and insights on how to respond in the competitive, changing world of hospitality by creating experiences,  Bespoke will help raise the restaurateur’s  game providing fresh insights needed to steer a course to customer delight, loyalty and ultimately business success.