Hate Too Many Choices? What Product Managers Need To Learn From The Toothpaste Problem…

So Simple And Yet So Difficult To Buy!
So Simple And Yet So Difficult To Buy!

I’ve got a quick quiz for you: how many different types of toothpastes are being sold right now? According to survey company Spire LLC which tracks the shopping data for more than 30 million U.S. households, we are currently faced with 352 distinct types of sizes of toothpaste. The good news is that this number is down from 412 back in March of 2008. What the heck is going on here?

How Did This All Get Started?

There have always been a lot of toothpastes out there. However, it was the Crest brand that originally blew the doors off of the market. Way back in 1960 the Crest product managers received the American Dental Association’s seal of approval for their product. When this happened, the sales of Crest tripled over the next two years.

Ever since this happened, toothpaste product managers have been engaging in a sort of arms race to see who can bring out the next new innovation in toothpaste in order to one-up their competition. What makes the toothpaste market different from most markets is that it’s estimated that 93% of American adults use toothpaste – this means that there aren’t a lot of new users to recruit.

As product managers add new benefits to their products, they also use this as an opportunity to boost the price of their products. Over the past four years the price of toothpaste has gone up by 8% and an average size toothpaste product now costs US$2.83. From a product manager’s point-of-view, what makes toothpaste such a great product is that despite the price increases, toothpaste products are able to command very strong customer loyalties.

Why Are There So Many Choices?

Clearly if you were a toothpaste product manager you’d be facing a tough job. Your only hope of boosting sales would be to steal customers away from other products. This means that you’re going to have to get creative.

One of your biggest challenges is going to be the simple fact that all toothpastes containers pretty much look the same – they are in long rectangular cartons. When a customer enters the aisle that contains toothpaste, they are going to be seeing a lot of products that all look the same.

Product managers are starting to find ways to deal with this problem. Over at Colgate-Palmolive, the product managers are working to change the packaging of their multiple toothpaste products. Their focus is on making it easier to tell that the toothpaste is from Colgate-Palmolive and then which variant a particular box contains.

This is the start of dealing with the problem of too many choices, but additional steps will need to be taken. It’s going to be hard for both product managers and retailers simply because toothpaste products bring in so much money. Additionally customers have shown a great deal of loyalty to a toothpaste brand once they select it. In order to make the whole process of buying toothpaste easier for their customers, product managers are going to have to slowly get them used to having fewer choices to make…

What All Of This Means For You

As product managers we love to meet our customers every need. Sometimes we try to do this by creating different versions of our core product that have been slightly modified to meet the needs of different slices of customers.

This thinking can easily get out of hand. If every variation of our product that we make seems to get purchased by some of our customers, we can quickly reach a point where we overwhelm our customers with too many choices to make when they try to buy our product.

Product managers need to take a step back every so often and do some research into what our customer’s buying experience is. If we find that we’re forcing them to have to make too many decisions, then we need to take steps to simplify the buying process. The simpler that we can make it to buy our product, the greater the chances that sales of our products will increase!

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: What do you think the maximum number of product variations of a product that should be offered is?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

What do product managers really spend their time doing? We like to talk about all of the things that a product manager should be spending their time doing – boldly defining new products and clearly laying out markets to go after. However, the day-to-day reality of being a product manager can be quite different. The folks over at Pragmatic Marketing have just released their annual product manager survey and it contains some interesting points…