Posted: September 26, 2013
Five years of research for the music industry led us here at Taylor increasingly to the conclusion that the primary cause of the industry’s woes could be explained simply by the term ubiquity. So much “free” music became so readily available from so many sources, that two things happened: (a) more and more consumers began to say, “Why buy when I can acquire whatever music I want for free?” and (b) increasingly, music became less “dear” to consumers—held less value in their minds. People continued to love music, no question about that, and they still consumed tons of music—maybe more than ever; but because it became so available for free everywhere they turned, they stopped buying the music they love. Why should they? They didn’t have to.
Over time, more and more consumers listened to music from an ever wider variety of “free” sources (legal and illegal), and the heaviest “wide-variety-of-sources” users, over time, purchased less and less music compared with the market as a whole. As music lovers, such consumers continued to purchase more music than other consumers, but their rate of decline in purchasing over time became significantly greater than that of the average consumer. Moreover, the perceived “value” of music to consumers ticked down slowly but steadily, quarter-by-quarter over that five-year period.
It turns out the music industry isn’t alone in the deleterious effects of ubiquity. Pay-TV service (cable, satellite, phone company TV), consumer electronics, movies, and apparel are examples of other afflicted industries. Too much choice gets in the way of the provider’s value proposition in the eyes of consumers.
Here’s some evidence of the point in a number of categories:
On consumer electronics shopping (from an article titled, “Shopping For Electronics Is A Drag”):
“Despite falling prices and the increasingly consolidated retail space, consumers still despise shopping for consumer electronics. . . . The process [is] more complicated than it needs to be. . . . The selection at most stores remains almost mindboggling, with products and models from a range of companies offering almost too much choice for buyers. Most shoppers . . . walk into the average CE retailer worried that they’ll buy the wrong thing or end up paying too much.”
On movie watching (quoting Siva Vaidhyanathan, UVA professor of media studies):
“It’s a paradox of abundance. If people aren’t pressured to see a movie in a specific timeframe, viewers tend to put it lower on their priority list. When you have every choice in front of you, you have less urgency about any particular choice.”
On jeans buying (from The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz):
“‘I want a pair of regular jeans,’ I said. ‘Do you want them slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit, baggy, or extra baggy,’ the sales woman replied. ‘Do you want them stone-washed, acid-washed, or distressed? Do you want them button-fly or zipper-fly?’ I was stunned. The trouble was that with all these options I was no longer sure WHAT I wanted. Increased choice brings autonomy and control, but as the number of choices continues to grow, so do the negatives. Beyond a certain point the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. Choice no longer liberates; it debilitates.”
On pay-TV service (from our work for leading firms in the industry):
The growing availability of video content online; the growth of services like Netflix, HuluPlus, Apple TV, etc.; and the availability of video-on-demand are surely eroding pay-TV service offerings—and are likely to continue to do so.
And then there’s my personal favorite example—the disastrous effect of “ubiquity” in hunting. [NOTE: I have never in my life hunted; I just love the book this notion comes from: “Meditations on Hunting,” by the great Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gasset]
“It’s essential that the desired animal is uncommon. If it were everywhere there would be no question of not running into it. If it is unnecessary to look for it because it is always at hand, in inexhaustible supply, one does not worry about success in killing it. If the first blow fails, it is all the same; another animal is right at hand to receive a second aggression, and so on indefinitely.”
In any category one can think of, so much choice so readily available from so many sources has a ruinous effect on one’s value proposition and affects consumers’ purchase decisions (and kills the fun if you’re a hunter). Ubiquity of choice in any given category makes the product (or service) less “dear” or more confusing (or both). Scarcity, which of course is the opposite of ubiquity, creates “value” in people’s minds. When something of reasonable value is relatively scarce, its perceived value is heightened; when something of value is available everywhere you turn in seemingly unlimited choice, its perceived value is diminished, and is at risk of being destroyed.