As a conversion optimiser, one of the perennial questions I get asked is “How many products should I display on my category pages”, swiftly followed by “Why?”.
Those are difficult questions to answer as websites are contextual; some things work exceptionally well for some, relatively well for others, and badly, if at all, for others. So, is there an optimal number?
Look at the following list pages, for example.
Each of the above companies has a different idea about what’s the right number of garments to display on a page.
The fact is, we like making choices because it makes us feel that we’re in control, but we can only make those choices confidently when we don’t feel overwhelmed. We must be able to look at a range of items, evaluate them and conclude what’s best for us.
So, in reality, what we really want is a great choice, but it needs to be limited. With too much choice, making a decision gets complicated and we either make what we feel was a rash decision or we fail to make a choice at all. 1–3
Dan Ariely, psychologist and behavioural economist (Duke University, North Carolina, USA), describes research that can influence people visually by giving them a choice.4 His context is making a choice between people, but you’ll undoubtedly see the connection with other visual stimuli such as the products you display on your category webpages.
He used two photographs of two different people, Tom and Jerry. The idea is to select who was the most dateable. However, there was a twist; he added a third person, Jerry’s ugly twin who he’d created using Photoshop. So, one group saw Jerry, Ugly Jerry and Tom. He did the same with Tom for another group of participants.
“The question was, will ugly Jerry and ugly Tom help their respective, more attractive, brothers? The answer was absolutely, yes. When ugly Jerry was around, Jerry was popular. When ugly Tom was around, Tom was popular,” reports Ariely.
For example, a similar strategy is usually used on SaaS websites where they encourage you to select from a limited choice of service options. Which of these is the most handsome offer?
The psychologist, Barry Schwartz (Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, USA), wrote, “The fact that some choice is good doesn’t necessarily mean that more choice is better…there is a cost to having an overload of choice.
As a culture, we are enamoured by freedom, self-determination, and variety, and we are reluctant to give up any of our options. But clinging tenaciously to all the choices available to us contribute to bad decisions, to anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction…”5
Schwartz says that if we only accept the best (what we perceive to be the best, that is) we are “maximisers”, whereas we are “satisficers” if we settle for what see as good enough.
For maximisers, making a decision is extremely difficult, particularly when filtering through umpteen choices, whereas for the satisficer, they’ll search to find something that meets their standard of being good enough and they won’t worry about whether there is something better. Which category are you?
I’d recommend you watch Barry Schwartz’s Ted Talk “The paradox of choice”. It has had more than 8.5 million views.
In 2007, Avni M. Shah (now Assistant Professor of Marketing, Toronto University, Canada) and George Wolford (now Chair of Education Department and Emeritus Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, USA), published research confirming their prediction that “as the number of choices increased, buying would initially increase and then decrease.”6
They chose a variety of roller-ball pens with black ink as the test products to sell to college students. The pens varied slightly in price and they differed in appearance, feel and mechanism. The number of buying options ranged from two to 20 in increments of two.
Prior to the experiment, students were asked to rate the pens on a scale of one “highly undesirable” to 10 “highly desirable”.
For the experiment, students were told that the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences wished to purchase several hundred pens for stock and it wanted the best. They kept adding to the pens on display in increments of two, including the top-rated and lowest-rated pens. For each successive larger set, more options were included (relatively high-rated and relatively low-rated pens, etc.).
Each participant was asked to select the pen they liked the best, and their choice was recorded. The participants were told after their selections that the pens were all within a similar price range, but they could buy the one they chose at half price.
Whether a pen was purchased was the primary dependent measure. The number of pens purchased peaked with a choice of 10 pens, dropping markedly when the choice increased to 12 and up to 20. This indicated that “it is only after the optimal has been exceeded that more choice results in less buying”.
All this talk about choice and how it affects people’s decision-making abilities leads me to recommend that you do your own research. Take a look at how you are presenting your products on your category pages. Is there a balance? Are there too many—how could you limit them? Do you want to limit what they see (Pinterest, Instagram)? Could you use style, colour, price range, improved selective navigation, etc., and move them to consecutive pages, for example?
This creates another question. What is the mind-set of your customer? Some may want to keep on scrolling as it is a social activity. Is shopping the same? It needs to be tested—so, make sure your site provides the enjoyable experience that encourages the social aspect of shopping.
Above all, do some customer research while they’re on your site—was there anything that nearly stopped you buying X today? In our own research, we’ve collected comments, including simply “too much choice” to “agony of choice”.
So going back to the original question “How many products should I display on my category pages and why?”.
The answer is, it depends. You have to test to find your optimal right number! Don’t rely on the default as being the only way.
Too much choice can mean no choice at all. And, that will result in lost revenue due to the friction you have unintentionally caused by blinding your customers with choice and expecting them to make decisions.
 L Sapadin, “Do you have difficulty making decisions?”, PsychCentral.
 A Tugend, “Too many choices: a problem that can paralyze”, Your Money, New York Times, 26 February (2010).
 KT May, “Does having choice make us happy? 6 studies that suggest it doesn’t always”, TED Blog, 19 July (2012).
 D Ariely, “Are we in control of our decisions”, TED Subtitles and Transcript, May (2009).
 B Schwartz, “The Paradox of Choice”, Harper Collins (2005).
 AM Shah and G Woolford, “Buying Behaviour as a Function of Parametric Variation of Number of Choices”, Psychol Sci., May, 18(5), 369–370 (2007).