At first look, the task of arranging a category of products for your customers to choose from may seem to be relatively simple, say the authors of a new research report. “However, in reality, this task is quite complex,” they note, “offering a virtually infinite number of assortment format choices.”

Case in point: Today’s online consumers are increasingly sophisticated—and demanding—regarding their search options at favorite sites. (Think of the array of cool category clicks at Amazon, Zappos, Netflix—the list goes on and on.)

So, what’s a product-category manager to do to keep up with savvy-consumer search demands? Focus on your “subcategory formats,” these researchers advise, and build in a surprise factor.

Example: In one restaurant-based experiment, these researchers showed sophisticated diners two menus. The “type-based” menu was organized by grouping the restaurant’s different kinds of foods together—sandwiches, soups, etc. The “theme-based” menu was more of a surprise: It grouped foods by nationality—Italian, Mexican, etc.

The result? The more sophisticated diners favored the unexpected theme-based menu, stating they expected it would give them a better understanding of the dishes being prepared.

The message for product managers? Surprising subcategory groupings of favorite products can pique the interest of your more savvy (read: bored) shoppers. “Unexpected subcategory formats can be used as a ‘newness cue’ … among higher prior-knowledge consumers who might otherwise be somewhat complacent in their processing,” the researchers state. “Happily, these consumers are more satisfied and expect to learn more” when presented with a surprise.

Stir things up. Consider fun new category groupings for familiar products. (Hertz lists cars in subcategories like “fun” or “green,” in addition to “sedan” or “truck,” these authors note.) A little surprise might recharge a sophisticated customer’s interest.

Source: How Assortment Formats Influence Consumer Learning and Satisfaction. Cait Poynor, Stacy Wood.