One of every 10 grocery items people buy goes unused

November 30, 1999

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - In one case, a can of sardines spent more than 20 years being passed from grandmother to mother to daughter. In another, a family packed, moved, and unpacked unwanted grocery items during five relocations.

"Nearly everyone is guilty of purchasing products they never use," writes University of Illinois business professor Brian Wansink. These abandoned products gradually migrate farther back on the shelf until they become almost invisible. Yet the money spent purchasing these dusty relics is not trivial - as much as 12 percent of all grocery items wind up as "cabinet castaways," Wansink reports.

To find out why consumers buy products they never use, the U. of I. professor surveyed 412 homemakers in five states. Sixty-one percent of those surveyed were between 35 and 50, more than two-thirds had children, 58 percent were college graduates and 71 percent were Anglo-Americans.

His results were surprising. While advertising is commonly blamed for convincing people to buy products they don't need, advertising, trial purchases, product sales and impulse buying accounted for only 16 percent of the total number of unused items. By contrast, fully 70 percent of those surveyed said they had purchased a castaway for a specific reason in mind.

"The leading reason why a product was never used was because consumers claimed the desired situation had not yet arisen," Wansink writes in the December issue of the Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences. This involved items purchased for a specific occasion, such as a holiday meal for future guests, or for a specific purpose, such as removing wine stains from a carpet.

Another 20 percent of the respondents said they did not use the product because it was "inconvenient." In follow-up focus groups, Wansink discovered that inconvenience often meant taking too much time. "When we buy unused products, such as the ingredients to make a dessert, it is often a result of our overly ambitious expectations of having enough time to prepare the recipe," he said.

In some cases, the consumer had simply forgotten about the item. Even when reminded of it, though, few respondents had any concrete plans to use it. "They simply expected that the original bygone usage situation would again present itself."

To help consumers save money and reduce clutter, Wansink offers the following suggestions:

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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