Too Many Choices?
It was time to redo the kitchen. When we did the dormer 25 years ago, the plumber ran the copper tubing across the kitchen ceiling and over to new upstairs bathroom. I trusted that copper at the time. After all, the original copper that went to the downstairs bathroom had served the house since 1950 and it was doing just fine. But as the years went by, that 25-year-old upstairs, cold-water copper line developed three leaks in three years, and always in the exact same spot. It was a foot or so from the nearest fitting and directly over the kitchen cabinets. The tubing just turned green in the darkness of the joist bay and leaked.
And it wasn’t a pressure leak. It was a slow, insidious drip, drip, dripping that ate into the sheetrock and the structure of the cabinets. Our plumber ripped up the bedroom floor above the kitchen and repaired the pipe twice. Replacing the whole run with PEX meant tearing up the floors in three rooms, so I decided to trust the new copper.
But then, a year later, the third leak appeared, and again in the exact same spot. I discovered this just as we were preparing to redo the kitchen, which involved tearing down the ceiling in two rooms below. That gave us the opportunity to replace all the copper with PEX.
I’ve come to believe that the copper made during the 1990s wasn’t nearly as good as the copper made in the 1950s, but that’s not the point of this story. This story is about choices, and about deciding.
Sears became famous for offering its customers a choice between what they defined as good, better, and best. They knew their customer might want, say, a hammer. That’s why the customer was in their store. And if he thought the good hammer was good enough, Sears would sell it to him, but not before trying to move him from good to better, which wasn’t that much of a leap. And if the customer went for the better, Sears would then try to move him to their best, which, by that point, also wasn’t much of a leap. It was a smart strategy and Sears knew that three choices were enough for most customers. When you have more than three you tend to get confused and put off the purchase.
Which brings me to my wife of many years: The Lovely Marianne. We live in the same house but when it comes to kitchen cabinets, countertops, backsplashes, and floors, I have no say whatsoever in any of it. I’m okay with this because I realize that if she’s not happy I’m going to be miserable.
We chose a local kitchen-and-bath contractor that’s been in our town for 40 years. Mike, who owns the company came to our house and measured things. Then he came back with a CAD drawing that made The Lovely Marianne say Wow!
So far, so good.
We went to Mike’s showroom and looked at cabinets. There were plenty of them. The Lovely Marianne asked a lot of questions and Mike answered them all with knowledge and patience. She asked the same questions again. He answered them again.
Finally, she knew for certain that she wanted white cabinets. Good. Now the choice was the style of the doors. Mike presented her with three choices, which made me think of Sears, although this wasn’t good, better, and best; it was just a question of style and a few bucks more this way or that.
She chose the one she liked best. She asked me what I thought and I told her that her choice was brilliant.
Yes, okay, but then Mike did something I wasn’t expecting. “There’s another way you can go with the doors,” he said to TLM, and out came with yet another option. The Lovely Marianne looked at the offered door and then at me, and then she said, “What do you think?”
“You’re a smart man,” Mike said. I nodded.
We both looked at Marianne, who a moment ago knew exactly what she wanted, but now wasn’t so sure. So we went back home so she could think about it some more.
A week later, we went back to Mike’s place to look again. Mike’s wife, Lois, came out to help TLM decide. That worked.
Meanwhile, the water continued to drip through our ceiling and down onto the old cabinets and I started to imagine them falling off the walls and killing both of us.
Next, Mike asked us what sort of floor we wanted. He gave us three choices: laminate, ceramic, or porcelain. She chose porcelain. That was easy; but then came the question of which porcelain. He sent us to the tile wholesaler to look.
A saleswoman greeted us and let us loose on hundreds of porcelain tiles from which TLM had to choose just one. She took weeks to decide. I carried sample after sample home from the wholesaler and placed each on the floor in daylight and lamplight, day after day. She would decide and go back to the wholesaler, only to see even more options. I went to the bar.
Once she finally chose a winner, the quartz countertop told us it was now his turn. The backsplash, cabinet knobs, sink, faucet, and more and more pieces of the puzzle were right behind the countertop. I longed for good, better, and best, as the choices spun my bride around and around, but that wasn’t meant to be.
“I’m going to watch some more of the home-design shows on TV,” TLM said. “And I’m going to go to the library to get some more design magazines.” I went back to the bar.
She finally decided on everything and Mike’s guys showed up to do the job. And during each step of the way, Marianne questioned whether she had made the right decision. “There were too many choices,” she said. I nodded but said not a word. I am not a stupid man.
But there’s another way to choose. Watch.
The second time that copper pipe in the ceiling leaked, the water worked its way back into our boiler room’s ceiling. Our house is on a slab and we access the boiler through a door that’s on the side of our house. It’s a tiny boiler room and the door creaks ominously when I open it. I opened it two Christmases ago and found the entire sheetrock ceiling sitting atop the boiler, along with several pounds of 65-year-old Rockwool. We had a houseful of daughters, sons-in-law, and grandkids at the time so I couldn’t go to the bar.
I called our heating contractor and they sent a guy over within a half-hour. This was on Christmas day. He looked at the tiny room and then at me and he said, “This is not good.”
The boiler was 25 years old, and since we had to rebuild the entire room I figured it was a good time to replace the boiler. So here’s how that went:
- I told the contractor to replace the boiler.
- He didn’t ask me what I wanted. He knows what I do for a living, but he didn’t ask me. I liked that.
- He told me what he was going to install. He did not give me a choice. I liked that, too.
- I didn’t ask him how much it was going to cost because I trust him.
- Marianne and I went away for a week and he called us when the job was done and told us to come home.
- It was perfect.
I wish remodeling could be that simple. Oh, and I know that the process I just described is somewhat unusual, but my heating contractor tells me that he does the same with many of his other customers. People don’t buy boilers and furnaces. They buy warmth, and if they’re smart, they buy the contractor. My heating contractor knows this and he knows that the more choices he gives a customer the longer it’s going to take for that customer to decide. If he gives them a choice between three boilers, he knows they’ll go in the Internet and research all three boilers. And then they’ll get even more confused.
So he gives them one option: Hire him or someone else. And once they hire him, they don’t need to choose a thing. He’ll do that for them.
That makes so much sense to me.
How about you?