Although evidence suggests that too many options could negatively affect consumers’ satisfaction in making decisions, the investigation into specific cultural context for whether choice overload exists requires further exploration. This paper investigates the phenomenon of choice overload and choice deprivation in the Chinese tea-based drinks market. This paper hypothesizes that Chinese customers are subjected to more choice overload than deprivation. Using an online survey, the primary data collected revealed that although the majority of consumers reported overall satisfaction, the gap between their ideal and actual choices suggests the presence of choice overload. This effect could be alleviated by categorizing the tea drinks menu into sections. Implications of these findings for menu design in the tea industry are also discussed in this paper.
With the development of society, the abundance of choices, technology, and products make people constantly bombarded by a large number of choices. While many believe that more choices provide greater freedom and control, other studies prove otherwise; decreasing satisfaction and higher chances of regret appear when people face an array of options. In 2008, research by Vohs et al. (2008) and her colleagues discovered that making a choice is more mentally exhausting than simply considering different options1. Additionally, research by Reutskaja et al. (2009) found that the relationship between the number of options available and the resulting satisfaction follows an inverted U-shaped curve2.
The concept of “choice overload” which was first introduced by the American writer Alvin Eugene Toffler in his book “Future Shock,” suggests that having too much choice can create its own sort of poverty3. The discussion about people’s behavior of making choices could be traced back to the 12th-century when the Persian scholar Al-Ghazali suggested that when choosing between two similar dates, the free will enables individuals to make the right choice4. In the fourteenth century, the French Philosopher, John Buridan describes a paradox named “Buridan’s ass”. It describes a situation which the two piles of hay in front of the starved donkey leads to its consequent death: Buridan suggests that the equally tempting choices are what result in an inability to act. Extending the paradox of Buridan’s ass, Z. J. Lipowski developed the theory of “attractive stimulus overload” in 1970, which outlines how the overabundance of attractive stimuli leads to more conflicts within individuals5.
The research conducted by Iyengar and Lepper in 2000 involves three studies that investigates the number of jams, essay topics, and chocolate. The striking finding suggests that instead of having 24 flavors of jams, which attract more customers to stop by, the six options of jams surprisingly leads to higher sales; having too much choice have hampered customers’ motivation to buy. Similarly, customers selecting from 30 options of chocolates reported having higher enjoyment in the process of choosing, but subsequently, higher frustration, regret, and dissatisfaction about their decisions. The writers indicate that the customers could be overly burdened by the responsibility of making a good decision that comes along with abundant choices6
Choice overload has been found to affect consumers’ behavior and preferences. The consumers under such circumstance prefer options that are easier to justify7. The indecisive, less satisfied customers can often lead to reduced revenue and negative reviews of the business, companies adjusted their strategies accordingly. For instance, Procter & Gamble, a manufacturer and marketer of consumer goods, increased sales by 10% after reducing the number of versions of its popular Head and Shoulders shampoo from 26 to 158.
In contrast, “choice deprivation,” defined as having fewer choices than desired, is found to be prevalent in many cultures other than United States, such as India, Russia, China, and Japan across various domains9. Despite this, the phenomenon of choice deprivation is often overlooked in favor of research on choice overload although the effect of deprivation has been shown to strongly correlate to decreased satisfaction9
Until now, a universal conclusion about the effect of the abundance of choices has not yet been reached. One research conducted by the University of New England suggests that participants are most satisfied when facing a noisy and choice overloaded condition10. The replication of similar experiment of Iyengar and Lepper (2000) by Scheibehenne (2008) of selling jam (Lafayette Confiture) in assortment sizes of 24 flavors and six flavors in Berlin proves no relationship between the assortment size and consumers’ motivation to purchase. Similarly, no significant choice overload effect is found in the experiments with wine and jellybeans11. It is suggested, therefore, that more research is needed on investigating the cross-cultural differences9.
To address the gap of the research, the phenomenon of choice overload or deprivation will be explored based on the tea-based drinks industry in China. Different from traditional milk tea, the new tea drink refers to the drink made by fine tea leaves, supplemented by different extraction methods to extract the concentrate as raw material, and added ingredients of fresh milk, cream, or various fresh fruit12. According to EqualOcean Intelligence’s research, the rise of new products, new tastes, new techniques, new forms of presentation, and new social attributes are important aspects of distinguishing the brand from its competitors13
With increasing disposable income, the rise of leisure consumption, and the positioning of experiential new tea drinks highly in line with residents’ health demands, the market size of tea drinks continues to rise12. The key characteristic of the tea drink industry is the increasing pace of digital transformation after the covid pandemic. For top brands such as HeyTea and Nayuki, the ordering ratio of brand’s mini program were 81% and 68% in 2020 respectively14.). In 2018, Meituan, China’s largest delivery website, had over 210 million orders for takeaway milk tea, far exceeding those for coffee, and “milk tea” became a hot search term on the delivery platform12.
As of November 30, 2020, the total number of tea drinking enterprises in China exceeded 300,000. The low entry barrier in the tea industry leads to fierce competition; therefore, satisfying customers’ demand and to take the lead is crucial for a tea drink brand14.). Examining the customers’ behavior and attitude under the frame of specific Chinese catering cultural background could be essential, as it could help advise local tea drinks business about the specific strategy of designing menus to increase sales.
Given this context, this paper aims to investigate whether or not choice overload exist in the current Chinese tea-based drink industry. The hypothesis is that in China, customers are more choice overloaded than deprived in the tea-based industry, based on the previous research indicating Chinese soft drinks has higher percentage of choice overload. A survey containing two sets of menus is conducted with 150 participants. By examining and comparing the results obtained from two menus, it will assist me to reach a comprehensive conclusion based on two layers: whether the tea-based drink industry provide too much choice, based on that, whether customers are still choice overloaded after the industry categorized them into sections.
In this study, the primary data was collected by sending out survey containing two menus. Within the menus, an overall of fifteen questions are designed to measure consumers’ behavior and preferences when faced with a large number of choices. Eventually, the data collected should help determine whether customers experience choice overload or deprivation.
|Monthly income (RMB)|
|Frequency of ordering|
|Once every day or more||5||3.33|
|3-5 times a week||17||11.33|
|1-2 times a week||39||26.00|
|1-2 times a month||67||44.67|
Of 150 respondents, 32.67% of them are between the age range of 0-16, 17.33% of them are between 17-30, 32% of them are between 31-45, 17.33% of them between 46-60, and 0.67% of them above the age of 60. For gender, 59.33% of respondents are female, 40% of respondents are male, and 0.67% of respondents is identified for neither. For income, 44.67% of respondents are having a monthly income less than 5000 RMB, 8% of respondents earning 5000-7999 RMB, 14.67% of respondents earning 8000-9999 RMB, 12% of respondents earning 10000-14999 RMB, 6% of respondents earning 15000-19999 RMB, and 14.67% of respondents earning more than 20000 RMB. For the frequency of ordering, 3.33% of respondents order tea once every day or more, 11.33% of respondents order 3-5 times a week, 26% of respondents order 1-2 times a week, 44.67% of respondents order 1-2 times a month, and 14.67% of respondents almost never ordered (Figure 1).
With Menu 2 representing the average menu in current tea-based drink industry, the correlation analysis is used to understand the relationship between the parameters of age, gender, monthly income, and frequency of ordering and choice overload or deprivation (Figure 2). The correlation coefficient between Age Range and Overall Satisfaction (M2) was 0.250, signifying a significant positive correlation at a significance level of 0.01. This indicates that as the age range increases, there is a corresponding increase in overall satisfaction (M2). Likewise, the relationship between Age Range and Aversion towards Choice Overload/Deprivation (M2) displayed a correlation coefficient of -0.298, also significant at the 0.01 level. As age range increases, the aversion towards choice overload (assigned as 1) tends to decrease, while aversion towards choice deprivation (assigned as 2) tends to increase.
|Overall satisfaction (M2)||0.250**||-0.108||0.258**||0.135|
|Perception of Options (M2)||-0.030||-0.120||0.114||0.102|
|Ideal Number of Choices (M2)||-0.037||0.011||-0.028||-0.057|
|Aversion towards Choice Overload/Deprivation (M2)||-0.298**||0.029||-0.211**||0.047|
|* p<0.05 ** p<0.01|
The Gender showed no significant correlation with Overall satisfaction (M2), Perception of Options (M2), Ideal Number of Choices (M2), and Aversion towards Choice Overload/Deprivation (M2) as the coefficient were -0.108, -0.120, 0.011, 0.029 respectively. As all of which were close to 0 and all the P-values are greater than 0.05, there was no correlation between the variable gender and the four items.
The correlation coefficients between Monthly Income and Overall satisfaction (M2), Aversion towards Choice Overload/Deprivation (M2) are significant. Specifically, the correlation between Monthly Income and Overall satisfaction (M2) is 0.258, with a significance of 0.01. The correlation between Monthly Income and Aversion towards Choice Overload/Deprivation (M2) was -0.211, showed at a significance level of 0.01. Therefore, the significant positive correlation between Monthly Income and Overall satisfaction (M2) suggests that as the Monthly Income increase, the Overall Satisfaction and aversion towards choice overload tends to increase. In addition, there was no significant correlation and therefore, no correlation between Monthly Income and Perception of Options (M2) and Ideal Number of Choices (M2) (p>0.05).
The Frequency of Ordering has shown no significance with the Overall satisfaction (M2), Perception of Options (M2), Ideal Number of Choices (M2), Aversion towards Choice Overload/Deprivation (M2) with respective values of 0.135, 0.102, -0.057, 0.047 that were close to 0. That means Frequency of Ordering has no correlation with the other four items.
The study compares the satisfaction level between the two menus (Figure 3). Overall, more than 60% of respondents who responded to Menu 1’s survey expressed high levels of satisfaction with the selection process (Figure 4). In Menu 2, most participants were satisfied with the selection process. The total proportion of very satisfied and relatively satisfied options account for 81.34% (Figure 5). The differences in the experimental data were investigated using the paired T-test. Each level of satisfaction is given a rank, ranging from “Very Satisfied” to “Very dissatisfied” (with a 1 being the highest level of satisfaction and a 4 the lowest). The specific comparison difference can be seen between overall satisfaction (M1) and overall satisfaction (M2), which both showed 0.01 level of significance (t=6.245, p=0.000). Overall satisfaction (M1) average (2.27) is significantly higher than overall satisfaction (M2) average (1.83).
The study goes on to explore the relationship between judgement of choices and overall satisfaction. The results indicate that the positive perception of choices is correlated to the higher level of satisfaction in choosing the drink. Additionally, according to the data table for uncategorized Menu 1, only 34% of people are satisfied with the options available, while 30.67% would like to have fewer options and 12.67 percent want more choices. Therefore, most people are not completely satisfied with the number of tea drinks in the menu (Figure 6). In the case of categorized Menu 2, most people are satisfied with the existing tea choices, accounting for 52.67%. This leaves 11.33% of people wanting to have more choices and 21.33% would like to have less choice (Figure 7). The numbers in the range of 1 through 4 are assigned in a left to right order. For example, “I hope to have more choices” and “Indifferent” are given ranks of 1 and accordingly “I frequently select the same beverage. ” has been given the rank of 4. The difference between the Perception of Options (M1) and Perception of Options (M2) can be seen at the 0.01 level of significance (t=3.230, p=0.002). The average Perception of Options (M1) (2.63), compared to the average Perception of Options (M2) (2.39), is considerably greater (Figure 3). Thus, the result shows that people generally hope to have more choices as they switched from Menu 1 to Menu 2.
According to the Menu 1’s data table, the majority of respondents (about 59%) believe that the ideal number of tea drinks to choose from is between 11 and 30. Only a small number of respondents (about 24%) believe that the ideal number of tea drinks is between 1-10 or 31-50. Fewer respondents (about 6%) thought the ideal number of tea drinks was more than 50. The mode and median of 11 to 30 different options are appropriate to satisfy the requirements of the majority of customers (Figure 8). For Menu 2, 48% of respondents prefer having 4-6 tea options in each category. 28% of people want the option of 7–10 different teas. Only a small percentage (4.67%) wanted 11 to 15 options for tea, and only 2.67% wanted more than 15 (Figure 9). The data base displays that a total of 57 (38%) of the responses consistently chose “11-30” for their ideal number of choices in total and “4-6” for their ideal number of choices in one of the eight categories. Among all respondents, 14 respondents chose “1-10” as their preferred total number but changed their selection to “4-6” or “7-10” for each category in the second menu. For the statistical analysis, ranks of 1 to 4 are assigned from left to right in accordance with the options shown in the graph. For instance, the option with the fewest drinks receives a value of 1 and the option with most drinks receives a value of 4. The specific contrast difference between the ideal number of choices (M1) and the ideal number of choices (M2) was shown to be significant at the 0.01 level (t=-3.627, p=0.000). In comparison to the average Ideal Number of Choices (M2) (2.29), the average Ideal Number of Choices (M1) (2.03) is significantly lower, showing that respondents intend to view less choice when responding to the uncategorized menu.
|Name||Pairing (mean ± standard deviation||Difference (pairing 1- pairing 2)||t||p|
|Paring 1||Paring 2|
|Overall satisfaction (M1) pair Overall satisfaction (M2)||2.27±0.97||1.83±0.80||0.44||6.245||0.000**|
|Perception of Options (M1) pair Perception of Options (M2)||2.63±0.97||2.39±0.87||0.24||3.230||0.002**|
|Ideal Number of Choices (M1) pair Ideal Number of Choices (M2)||2.03±0.87||2.29±0.89||-0.26||-3.627||0.000**|
|Aversion towards Choice Overload/Deprivation (M1) pair Aversion towards Choice Overload/Deprivation (M2)||1.25±0.43||1.33±0.47||-0.08||-2.147||0.033*|
|* p<0.05 ** p<0.01|
Finally, the survey explored whether or not the respondents would respond more strongly towards choice overload than choice deprivation. The response to both menus demonstrated that the majority of people have more aversions towards too many choices than too less choices. Comparatively, consumers were more tolerant for too many choices in categorized menu than the uncategorized menu. For Menu 1, 75.33% rather have half of their ideal choice, while 24.67% prefer to have twice their ideal choice (Figure 10). For Menu 2, 67.33% of people chose half of their ideal choice, while 32.67% chose to double their choice (Figure 11). With “Half of my ideal choice” assigned 1 and “Double of my ideal choice” assigned 2, the mean value of Aversion towards Choice Overload/Deprivation (M1) is 1.25 and is significantly lower than the mean of Aversion towards Choice Overload/Deprivation (M2) (1.33). This indicates that more people are willing to accept more choices when the same number of drinks are categorized (Figure 3).
The general finding from the online survey is that customers are more choice overloaded than deprived in tea-based drink industry. This is reflected shown in the higher proportion of responses intending to have fewer options compared to more options. Although the majority of respondents reported that they are satisfied with the given choice and overall selection process, changes could be made to further enhance customer experience. On top of this, the results show the layout of menu could significantly alter customers’ perception of choices presented to them.
Among all demographic parameters, only Age Range and Monthly Income has shown a correlation with the Aversion towards Choice Overload/Deprivation. Possible explanation for the positive correlation between Age and Monthly Income could be that people with higher earnings generally consider the amount spent on tea-based drinks constitutes a relatively small percentage of their earnings. Therefore, their selection might orient towards selecting drinks in a time saving manner. On the other hand, older people tend to have more time to evaluate various aspect before purchasing a drink option, which means they would be willing to spend more time on a wider variety of drinks.
In general, majority of the participants are satisfied with the choices given by both menus. Despite so, the participants responded an increased overall satisfaction when selecting an option from the categorized menu which indicates the menu range could still be improved. The categorization could be the contributing factor to the increase of satisfaction level.
The current layout of menus is effective in influencing customers’ perception of choices and their behavior of selecting drinks. In the question investigating customers’ ideal number of choices. It is worth noting that even though in each option of the question, the total number of drinks, after multiplying the number of categories with drinks per categories, is larger than Menu 1’s corresponding options, the pairing value of Ideal Number of Choices (M1) is still lower than the average Ideal Number of Choices (M2). This suggests that customers tend to experience less choice overload and demonstrate greater tolerance towards the categorized menu. The layout of the section might visually alleviate the burden of selection, which signals easier and more enjoyable options to the respondents. The availability of categorized sections allows people to direct their focus on specific choices to make expedient decisions. This is congruent with the study by Besedeš, Tibor, et al., which demonstrates the effectiveness of a sequential choice architecture as it does not reduce the overall number of choices but eliminates options from other sections by directing consumers’ focus on one category15. The layout of the menu also alters the customers’ judgement of choices. More people want to have less choices in Menu 1 (Figure 6) than Menu 2 (Figure 7), although the total number of choices in the menus are kept the same. Some consumers also switch from “often choose the same type of drink” in Menu 1 (Figure 6) to viewing other potential choices in Menu 2 (Figure 7). This could be the result of a categorized layout which fosters interest in consumers and prompted them to select take other drinks into consideration.
Generally, the research finds similarities and differences with the observations of the prior studies. For the cross-cultural choice overload reported by Reutskaja et al. (2021), among the six choice domains it has studied, the choice overload effect in this paper is most similar to the perception of choice in the domain of soft drinks9. The major difference from this study is that instead of basing the results on a ten-point scale, the questions directly ask for respondents’ satisfaction, which arguably reduces inconsistencies based different consumers’ different interpretation of the scale number’s representational meaning. This research also makes sure that the 60% of the sample consists of female. This sample is closer to the real-life situation in Chinese tea drinks market where higher proportion of female consumers consists of the target customer group.
Different from the study conducted by Reibstein et al. which concludes subjects perceived decision freedom is increased by an enlarged choice set in the experiment of choosing a soft drink flavor16, this study shows a decreased satisfaction of consumers towards larger number of choices. This could be justified as the research offers a total of 69 choices for selection rather than a maximum of 4 choices as indicated in the soft drink flavor study. This study also disagrees with the statement that menu is viewed as an exception of choice overload17. Chinese customers still face significant choice overload when menus are offered.
Compared to general findings on suitable and preferred options for restaurant food, which suggest that 6 options are appropriate for quick service, and 7 options for starters and desserts18, as well as limiting jams to 6 items instead of 3017, this paper directly explores the number of choices preferred by customers rather than imposing a predetermined number that may be influenced by subjective factors. The actual result of the research indicates that Chinese customers in tea drinks market generally accept a total of 11-30 choice in uncategorized situations and prefer a smaller choice set between 4-6 in categorized situations.
However, there are also several limitations of this paper. Due to time constraints, the sample size for this paper with only 150 people is relatively small. Also, the sample is not balanced as more focus is directed on the respondents aging from 0-16 and 31-45, while a more accurate reflection of the market should invite more respondents with age that is below 35. Thirdly, the two menus might lead to potential biases of respondents as they might compare and re-evaluate their satisfaction level after an improved version of Menu 1.
To address these issues, future experiments could consider replicating the experiment but invite respondents from a demographic group which is more reflective of the Chinese tea drink market to validate the finding. It can also separate the respondents into two groups and present each group with only one menu, categorized or uncategorized, to reduce possible bias such as comparing the two menus and answering questions based on respondents’ judgement of the experiment’s purpose.
Based on finding that the potential optimum choice for each section is about 4-6, practical suggestions could be made to improve the menus of local tea-drinks outlets. As the second menu is more fitting to the menu design in real life situation, this finding confirms the importance of categorizing the menu. However, the survey shows neither menu fulfills the current need of the customers as it is found to have a high proportion of choice overload in comparison to choice deprivation. Currently, the average total number of tea drinks among the top five brands are about 69 with 8 categories. These are both larger than the preferred choice options that respondents reported. Therefore, the businesses could consider cutting down the choices containing similar ingredients to enhance customer satisfaction.
Future research may focus on the effect on sales revenue of tea-based drink businesses as a result of increased customer satisfaction and reduced choice overload. As this paper focuses on the average of eight categories of tea-drinks, Further studies could investigate the effect of menus with different numbers of categories but the same number of drinks within on customers’ perception of choices. Different moderators such as prices and recommended options could also be tested to examine the impact, they have on choice overload.
In conclusion, this study agrees with the hypothesis that there is the phenomenon of choice overload in Chinese tea-based drinks industry. In addition, the layout of categorized menus could adequately alleviate the choice overload phenomenon in Chinese tea drinks market.
Materials and Methods
In this research, I used an online crowdsourcing platform called Sojump19 in mainland China and SPSSAU (18) to collect and analyze primary data from 150 individuals. Three respondents were excluded because they did not meet the requirement of “living in China.” I sent out a survey consisting of fifteen questions designed to measure consumers’ behavior and preferences when facing a large number of choices via Wechat20.
The question in the survey began by asking the responders about their age, gender, income, and their frequency of ordering tea drinks so that their demographic parameters could later be compared with their perception of overload and deprivation.
Next, the survey displays two menus of tea-based drinks with a set scenario. The drinks are randomly and evenly selected from the top five ranking China’s tea drink brands, Coco Fresh Tea & Juice, Alittle-tea, Nayuki, MIXUE, and Heytea, to avoid brand biases for both menus21. We accessed Meituan’s ordering page22 for each of these tea drinks selections in the Songjiang District in Shanghai in March and found that the total average number of tea drinks was 69, with an average of 8 sections per menu.
I designed two menus with the same number and same type of tea drinks. The first menu showed a total of 69 drinks without being categorized. The second menu showed a total of 69 drinks categorized into 8 specific sections, similar to a real-life tea drink outlet. The first menu aimed to test whether choice overload occurs regardless of the layout of drinks.
Following the two menus, I included four multiple-choice questions each to assess the level of choice overload or deprivation experienced by customers. The questions investigated respondents’ overall satisfaction level in the process of selection, their opinion on the number of choices presented, their ideal number of choices, and whether they preferred choice overload more than deprivation. Please refer to the Appendix for the survey questions and menus 1 and 2.
This appendix provided provides important information including both categorized and uncategorized menu as well as the sequence of questions presented. It adds as a visual supplement to the material and methods section.
Consumer surveys related to the current tea industry in China
This is a consumer survey related to the current tea industry in China. According to a 2021 report by EqualOcean Intelligence, the new tea drink refers to the drink made by fine tea leaves, supplemented by different extraction methods to extract the concentrate as raw material, and added ingredients of fresh milk, cream, or various fresh fruit.
1. Are you currently living in China? *
- No (Please skip to the end of the questionnaire and submit answer sheet)
2. What is your age range (in years)? *
3. What is your gender? *
4. What is your monthly income (RMB??*
- ? 5000
- > 20000
5. How often do you order tea drinks (including milk tea)? *
- Once every day or more
- 3-5 times a week
- 1-2 times a week
- 1-2 times a month
- Almost never
6. Please see MENU 1 that combines China’s top tea drinks brands below. Assume that it’s a pleasant afternoon and you want to order one tea-based drink. Please take some time to preview the following choices as you would a formal order. Which drink would you select?
Please write the name of the drink in the box below: *
7. What was your overall satisfaction level in the process of selection? *
- Very satisfied
- Somewhat satisfied
- Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied
- Somewhat dissatisfied
- Very dissatisfied
8. What do you think of the number of choices presented to you? *
- I hope to have more choices
- I am happy with the given choices
- I hope to have less choices
- Indifferent. I often choose the same type of drink.
9.What is your ideal number of choices? Please select your approximate range of number below. *
10. Would you rather have a number that is half of the number of choices you selected or a number that is two times of the choices you selected? *
- Half of my ideal choices
- Double of my ideal choices
11. Please see MENU 2 that combines China’s top tea drink brands below. Which drink would you select?
Please select one drink and write in the box below: *
12. What was your overall satisfaction level in the process of selection? *
- Very satisfied
- Somewhat satisfied
- Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied
- Somewhat dissatisfied
- Very dissatisfied
13. What do you think of the number of choices presented to you within each category of tea-based drink?[???] *
- I hope to have more choices
- I am happy with the given choices
- I hope to have less choices
- Indifferent. I often choose the same type of drink
14. What is your ideal number of choices within each category? Please select your approximate range of number below. *
15. Would you rather have a number that is half of the number of choices you selected or a number that is two times of the choices you selected? *
- Half of my ideal choices
- Double of my ideal choices
*The actual questionnaire was in bilingual format for the convenience of Chinese respondents.
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