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For online shoppers, is too much variety a blessing or a curse?

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Patrons visit the 'Did You Check eBay?' Holiday Airstream at Christkindl Market on December 4, 2017 in Denver, Colorado.

Sifting through the thousands of product choices online is getting harder. Tom Cooper/Getty Images

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Shopping online can be like searching for a needle in a haystack. Deep behind the thousands of similar products, some of high quality, most not, is the perfect one. At least in theory.

This level of variety and millions of choices for online shoppers was originally a welcome phenomenon. Consumers could easily compare and contrast products to make smart purchases from the comfort of their homes. But as Amazon and other online retailers have opened up to third-party sellers, that variety has become something closer to a burden for buyers.

Amanda Mull, a staff writer at the Atlantic, wrote about the demise of this ‘smart shopper‘ and the double-edged sword of limitless options. “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal spoke with Mull about whether there is such a thing as too much variety, and how we got here.

Amanda Mull: There is a certain amount of variety that is wonderful for people to have that is great for enabling people to make good decisions, to feel like they understood their options. And then there is an amount of variety that is what we have right now, I think that makes choosing anything and feeling good about your choice sort of impossible at times. And that can just be sort of a paralyzing feeling. The scale of choice that we have is has diminishing returns after a while.

Kai Ryssdal: I need a trailer hitch bike rack for my car. And let me tell you, it’s overwhelming the amount of stuff you have to think about when you want to buy one of those. Let me ask you this, though, how did this happen? Because and let’s pick on Amazon, because they’re the market leader. And everybody follows them in many, many ways. When Amazon started, we clicked on it, we found some things and we had a choice. And Amazon now sort of seems to not be in that business anymore.

Mull: The name of the game in in tech companies and internet tech giants has always been scale. The easiest way to shore up your long-term viability as a company is to get bigger to attract more customers to provide more things, more people. So, what Amazon said is that, basically that we want scale, but we want to limit our exposure to these sorts of labor intensive, messy logistical things. So, they sort of flung open their doors to third party sellers, and their most recent figure was that they had 2 million active third-party sellers on Amazon. And that means that you buy those products through Amazon, but those listings are managed by God knows who. So, you’ve got this, this real mess, and it’s a mess, at an enormous scale.

Ryssdal: One hates to be dystopian here, but this system is pretty much baked, right? I mean, Amazon is one of the biggest companies on the planet, it is almost globally popular. Is there, I don’t even know what the question is, is there a way around? Is there a way that the smart shopper once again, can at least try to have something of an informed experience?

Mull: It is pretty baked, you’re right. And Amazon, with their scale and their influence has sort of encouraged other companies like Target, Walmart, etc., to use some of these same tactics. When you go to Walmart’s website and search for something that you think you might normally pick up in a Walmart store, you will get some options sold by the company itself, but then you’ll get all of these third-party seller listings like you would on Amazon. And it sort of validates Amazon’s theory of the case, as far as scale goes, because once you sort of become embedded in someone’s shopping behavior, it is very hard to get a person out of that.

But I don’t think that we’re doomed to this necessarily. Different countries have different regulatory systems for forcing retailers online and off to be more transparent with their customers. But there’s not a lot of political will around that and these companies have a whole lot of money and a whole lot of influence. But my suggestion would be that I think these systems, and especially Amazon, tend to train us to over shop. And I think the best like individual way to push back on that system is asking yourself, ‘Is this a problem I can solve without buying something?’ And I think that those more mindful approaches are a good place to start for most people.

Ryssdal: In the meanwhile, though, ‘Caveat Emptor’, what you talk about in this piece, ‘buyer beware’, that’s the name of the consuming game now.

Mull: Right. That is a common law doctrine that seems to have been around as long as commerce itself and it sort of forms the basis of our consumer system. In the day-to-day sort of game that we’re playing here with these companies it is it is on the individual to protect themselves, sometimes with little more than their own doggedness.

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