Chipotle and the Illusion of Choice

December 6, 2005

There’s a new Chipotle around the corner from our office. Since it opened about 2 months ago, lunchtime lines and crowds have been pretty impressive.

The McDonald’s-owned Mexican food chain essentially brings a Subway style build-it-as-you-go approach to burritos and the like. First off, the food is good. The ingredients and the guac seem to be as fresh as advertised. Burrito snobs may balk, but compared to comparable fare (at least in our neighborhood) this is a pretty appealing lunch option.

On first blush, the menu seems to have as many choices as you want. Yet, building upon the expectations we’ve developed for Mexican food in this country, everything is kind of the same – save for shape, and type of meat. First you choose shape (burrito, taco, salad style in a tortilla shell or a bowl, etc.) then you choose filling (chicken, beef, pork, steak, veggie) – and then you are on your way down the assembly line with a small set of options at each step: pinto beans or black beans; 4 different salsas; yes/no lettuce; cheese or sour cream; yes/no guac.

By the time you get to the register, it kind of feels like you built your own burrito – but it also leaves you wishing you could have had more input into the process. From a creativity standpoint, Subway offers a virtual salad bar for your fixins – and the build is much more satisfying as a result. With Chipotle, the experience is a bit of a sham – and ultimately unsatisfying (as opposed to the tasty burritos themselves). Choice is limited and controlled – and just ain’t what’s promised. McDonald’s certainly knows a thing or two about customers and choice. Research has indeed shown that too much choice can be paralyzing and, thus, bad for sales. Think about how long it takes you find a new cereal at the supermarket. Do you like your oats with a touch of honey or some dried strawberries or some almond slices or maybe you prefer bran?

Fact is, people like choice, just not too much. From a marketer’s perspective, if you can get folks to buy into limited choice, your life is certainly easier and your line to the register can move that much faster. And, in the case of Chipotle, the illusion of choice backed by really fresh guacamole seems to be enough.

- Jonathan Paisner

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