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KEEPING IT SIMPLE Consumers are often happier with fewer choices


NEW YORK -- Here's a new prescription for customer happiness: fewer choices.

That may sound odd, but look at what's making consumer news: American Airlines drops several hundred fares to offer only four, and other airlines follow. Alamo Rent A Car cuts rental options to a three-tier plan. Chrysler and General Motors are urged to dump longtime names such as Plymouth and Oldsmobile to reduce confusion among overlapping makes and models.

The harried consumer, flooded with information and desperate to make the best buy, is rebelling against too much of a good thing.

"It's part of this whole back-to-basics notion," said Susan Small-Weil, chief planning officer for the ad agency Warwick Baker & Fiore. "People in the 1990s don't want to . . . juggle all the complexities created in the 1980s."

Don't panic. "Choice," the mantra of the American shopper, is not about to disappear. Toothpaste buyers will still be free to choose between Original Flavor Tartar Control Gel in the tube and Peppermint Flavor Baking Soda Tartar Control Original Formula in the pump.

But just as marketers race to give consumers a choice in countries such as Russia or Poland, back in the United States they see the dangers of too many choices.

American Airlines' move to cut and simplify fares came after a year of concern. Ron Miller, American's self-described "domestic pricing guru," said the airline had been getting more and more letters "complaining about the complexity" of fares.

It was hurting the company's image, he said, that the man in 11A could not sit back and relax without worrying if the woman in

11B had bought her ticket for $33 less. "We were alienating a lot of people."

Carmakers have for decades excelled at giving the consumer variations on a theme. It was Henry Ford who supposedly said about Model T customers, "I don't care what color they want, so long as it's black," but automakers did not stick long to that approach. Soon enough buyers could choose just about any color -- not to mention AM-FM, two-door, four-door, air conditioning, racing stripes and more.

Now there are 250 models of cars and trucks in the United States, not to mention variations within models, said Tom Healey, director of media and advertising for J. D. Power and Associates, an automotive research firm.

As a result, he added, carmakers have begun to dilute their own brand names, leaving customers suspicious of product claims and prices.

Many analysts think GM should streamline, perhaps combining Oldsmobile and Buick, or Chevrolet and Pontiac.

Mr. Healey expects more companies to go the way of Toyota, which has built a strong brand image with just a handful of names, such as Camry. And within Camry, for example, Toyota offers three basic price levels, not an infinite variety, he said. "We're getting away from the custom car."

How did choice get out of hand? Through the last few decades, competition for space on supermarket shelves and for the attention of the busy consumer has pushed companies to vary their offering. If one company offered barbecue-flavored chips, another had to trump that with sour cream and chives.

Meanwhile, a steady but confusing flow of medical claims sent consumers scurrying from fiber to oat bran to calcium in their search for health. With the emphasis on the environment, "green" products added another dimension.

Deregulation in areas such as air travel, financial services and telecommunications also has complicated some of consumers' most important decisions. It used to be that Ma Bell made your decisions for you; service may have been less varied, but consumers did not have to devote a whole evening to picking a carrier.

Companies with the lion's share of a market, such as American Telephone & Telegraph Co., actually bank on that confusion in the hope that customers will simply stay with them, said Jorge Rodriguez, Sprint's vice president of advertising and marketing. But in research, he said, "We hear . . . isn't there a way of making this simple and easy for me?"

So Sprint has run ads promising help. In one, Candice Bergen says: "I have a confession to make. I have no idea how to choose a long-distance calling plan." The good news, says Ms. Bergen: "I don't have to. Sprint does it for me."

The one-stop-shopping concept is another way to help customers, said Ms. Small-Weil.

American Express, for example, is advertising a joint American Express/AT&T; card service for small businesses with the slogan "Keep it Simple." Cardholders get a monthly bill that includes everything from restaurant meals to long distance.

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