Toward the Infallible Wawa Hoagie Order

by Jeff Quinton

Thanks for hookin it up @aponte_elliot #wawahoagie #yum

A photo posted by Julie 💖 (@julzmarie97) on May 28, 2015 at 9:46am PDT

The Pope is coming to Philadelphia. Like all dignified guests of the city, he will be given a Wawa hoagie of his choosing. For the unfamiliar, Wawa, per its website, “is your all day, every day stop for fresh, built-to-order foods, beverages, coffee, fuel services, and surcharge-free ATMs.” Those are the facts, but the facts are the easy part. The hard part is The Choice.

Those who have ordered a hoagie at Wawa know what it’s like to be in front of those video-touch screens, their entire lives and future happiness lying on the horizon, any number of screen-touches ahead. But even for those who have ordered hundreds of hoagies at Wawa, with trusty standards and even reliable change-of-pace orders, The Choice can seem insurmountable.

With over twenty hoagies options available in three sizes on two different breads, plus five or more cheese options, ten plus spreads and even more toppings — and oh, did you want it toasted? — ordering a custom, Built-to-Order hoagie can be intimidating. Beyond these layers of choice, the time of day, time of year, mood, weather, location, promotions (Hoagiefest!!!), appetite, metabolism, digestion prowess, previous life choices, and future rationalizations are all factors to be considered.


But, no matter how difficult the choice, we should not lose sight of what brings us all here — the joy of eating food that we selected from a video screen. And just as we love Wawa because Wawa brings us joy, we want others to love Wawa because we know the joy Wawa can bring them. We want the Pope, just like the kid who comes to Philadelphia from the Midwest or China for undergraduate studies, to find a richer life through the love of Wawa.

Wawanscendentalists will point out, as does the science, that most people naturally find love for Wawa. Some, however, struggle with the options, with The Choice, and do not immediatelyfind this love. They say things like, “Sheetz is better” or “why get Wawa when there are great delis in the area?” Often, this is just a cry for help. They are really asking, “Why is everyone else’s order so appetizing, but my orders consistently leave me wishing I had outsourced my Wawa hoagie procurement? Why is my life absent of this joy?” They might blame the world or they might blame themselves or both, but regardless, there is hope.

People are flawed decision makers. Luckily, we (people) tend to make mistakes when choosing among options in certain, predictable ways. Some of these decision making errors will be lurking when ordering a hoagie at Wawa. We will identify them in order to hopefully best them.

The Default Effect

Our world is complex. Our brains are complex too, but they are built to turn the complex into the simple and actionable. One shortcut the brain uses is to rely on the default setting. The behavioral economics community calls this the default effect. Just how profound is the default effect? It has been found that culturally similar countries such as Germany and Austria or Belgium and The Netherlands, show vastly different organ donation rates, in which the biggest difference between the countries is simply the default setting (whether opt-in or opt-out is the default). The below is from a paper by Eric Johnson and Daniel Goldstein:


Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at MIT, using the above as an example, writes the following about why we can be as affected as we are by default settings:

You might think that people do this because they don’t care. That the decision about donating their organs is so trivial that they can’t be bothered to lift up the pencil and check the box. But in fact the opposite is true. This is a hard emotional decision…It is because of the difficulty and the emotionality of these decisions that they just don’t know what to do so they adopt the default option.

Those familiar with Wawa see where this is going. They know the “the emotionality” of the decision in choosing a Wawa hoagie. They also know that instead of deciding to choose a truly customized hoagie, Wawa also allows us to us to choose from “Classic Hoagie” options. All you do is pick a size and a figuratively off-the-shelf hoagie design (all hoagies are made to order). But what these options really do is extend us a crutch when facing these “hard emotional decisions.”

Now, any of the Classic Hoagies might be the optimal hoagie for a hoagie-desirer at any given time, but often they are not. They do not take full advantage of Wawa’s vast options that allow us to pick a hoagie that is perfectly matched to our current taste, mood, wants, and needs. In the behavioral sandwich community, we call this the Customizability Deficit. In plain terms, this is missing out on one life’s true joys. Unfortunately, even if we avoid being improperly influenced by default settings, there are decision making hurdles to hurdle when facing an overwhelming amount of options. Yes, choosing a Wawa hoagie is a double edged sword.

Tyranny of Choice

We like having choices, to a point. It is comforting to know that we can give our taste buds the taste of mayonnaise with Wawa’s “little bit of Mayo” option, while still being calorically responsible. We like the thrill of being able to choose a hoagie that is completely unexpected, but still a hoagie. We like to feel like we built something, especially when it only requires touching a screen a certain number of times. The data shows that the more choices we have, the more satisfied we are with the decision making process. Unfortunately, this is where the fun ends.

The data also shows that the more choices we have, the less satisfied we are with the outcome. Put differently, we become dissatisfied because we know that there are thousands of options, potentially superior ones, on which we are missing out. Would smoked turkey have paired better with this swiss and spicy mustard than the oven roasted turkey I went with? Would I even be second guessing myself if I went with honey mustard instead of spicy mustard? Would pickles have made the difference? This is what we call the Sandwich-Option Hindsight Spiral.


Process and Hope

The Pope will have a lot on his plate, so he cannot second guess his Built-to-Order hoagie order. Even though we knew and know the danger, we have all been there. So what to do? There is no perfect answer, but there is some helpful advice out there. Hoagie consumers find that they are most satisfied with their decision when either a) when they go with a decision they know has worked previously (unfortunately, not an option for the Pope) or b) understand that a single decision is a single point in the never ending process of improving our hoagie orders and that because we may never find the perfect hoagie, we can only do our best to take all of the contextual factors into account, check our assumptions, and tap the options on the screen that give us the best odds of giving us a hoagie we will enjoy.

It is not going to be easy, but I know the Pope can do this. I’ve seen it happened before. I’ve seen it happen more often than not. It might be choice-supportive bias, but I remember enjoying my first Wawa hoagie with minimal regrets. If I didn’t think the Pope were going to read the previous thirteen-hundred-plus words on choosing a hoagie at Wawa, I would tell him this: “The video-touch screen is not a river needing to be forded; rather, it is the boat that will take you to the safety and beauty and deliciousness of the opposing shore. So know yourself, your taste buds and stomach, know that your order will be imperfect, but that it will still be you. Know that it will bring you joy and that more joy is out there and that this is a positive because true joy lies within the journey, not the destination.”

More than anything though, I would tell him, “Before you can pick-up your hoagie at the counter, you first need to pay at the register. Good luck.”

Photo of Wawa store by Montgomery County Planning Commission; photo of ordering screen by Wikimedia