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The Mystery of the Cabinet Castaway: Why We Buy Products We Never Use

Wansink, Brian, S. Adam Brasel, and Steven Amjad (2000). The Mystery of the Cabinet Castaway: Why We Buy Products We Never Use. Journal of Family and Consumer Science, Vol. 92(1), 104–108.

Everyone has purchased products they never used. Although consumers are often quick to place the blame on advertising and bulk buying, recent studies found that most of those unused products are really the result of over–optimistic plans.

To understand what made consumers buy products they do not use, open–ended questionnaires were asked of 450 consumers. The results were published in the Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences. They found product such as canned quail eggs, pizza–flavored salad dressing, canned whale meat, grass jelly, and lots of Tabasco sauce. *

The study found that more than 63% of unused products were actually bought for specific recipes (such as Beef Wellington) that were never made or specific occasions that never occurred. When people buy products for specific recipes or specific occasions, they tend to be overly optimistic. People in these situations believe that they can achieve the perfect recipe or think that more people will attend their party. After buying the product, people lack the time to prepare the recipe or they overestimate the amount of people at their party; leaving the occasion–specific product unused, unwanted and sitting in the backs of their cupboards. The unused products were not the result of flashy advertising and bulk buying – they are simply souvenirs of unfulfilled plans.

"The consumers had visualized a use for the product that quite simply never materialized," said Dr. Brian Wansink, lead author and Director of the Food and Brand Lab.

Wansink suggested that consumers can prevent this from happening by working to make sure that the products they buy aren't forgotten. He said consumers can do the following to make sure products are either visible or used:

  • Rotate products from the back of the shelf to the front during cleaning.
  • Plan new uses for abandoned products.
  • Dispose of expired products.
  • Donate non–expired, abandoned products to the local food bank instead of throwing the product away.

Download a pre-print version of this article here. Posted with permission of the Journal of Family & Consumer Sciences, www.aafcs.org.

*The study was conducted at the University of Illinois, former location of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.