It seemed like a good idea then

Sun Journal

Food: We keep that can of whale meat and other unfortunate products on the shelf because we hate to admit the purchase was a mistake, a researcher says.

January 26, 2000|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Now that the holidays are well behind, University of Illinois researcher Brian Wansink thinks it's a good time to dig through the fridge and the pantry in search of all those awful products you bought back in December with only the best of intentions.

The pizza-flavored salad dressing? The candy-cane-colored cake frosting? The potted meat? The low-cal, no-taste powdered eggnog mix?

C'mon. If you didn't use them when the aunts and uncles came to visit, chances are you never will. If you don't act now, that triple-hot hot sauce will eventually turn into a solid and you might find bugs nesting in the eggnog in 2003.

But Wansink thinks he knows you better than that. He thinks you'll hang on to the pre-holiday purchases. Furthermore, he thinks they will take up space in your pantry for a long, long time.

Because one thing he's learned about consumers: They hate to admit they've made a mistake.

"People don't want to say, `I bought that because I'm an idiot.' They say, `It's the marketers.' They'd much rather say, `It's not my fault,' " said Wansink, an associate professor of agricultural and consumer economics here.

"And who knows? Someone might come by some time who wants some pizza-flavored salad dressing."

Last month, Wansink's study -- "The mystery of the cabinet castaway: Why we buy products we never use" -- was published in the Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences. It was another step in his long-term pursuit of answers to the mysteries and psychology of consumer buying practices.

The results of his most recent study -- and their broader economic implications -- startled him.

Based upon interviews with 412 families last year, he found that 12 percent of products are never used and are eventually discarded. The products that were discarded by those 412 Midwest and East Coast families had been taking up space in the refrigerator or on the shelf for an average of 2.7 years.

The most common castaways were special recipe ingredients and canned goods. Most were purchased for a specific recipe. Wansink found such products as chutney ketchup, grass jelly, quail eggs, canned whale meat and lots of spices and hot pepper sauce.

The main reason they were collecting dust -- in 63 percent of the cases -- was that they were destined for a meal that never saw the light of the dinner table.

"People have the best intentions and the highest expectations for using these things at a specific point in time. But if that time slips by, they're hosed," he said.

Wansink and his assistants also found that many families had moved one or two times -- in one case, five times -- and took the unused products with them.

He found one man in Allentown, Pa., who still had five bottles of Crystal Pepsi, a clear version of Pepsi Cola that was made in the early 1990s but discontinued. When asked why he hadn't consumed the cola, the man said it had lost its color.

"He didn't remember it was supposed to be colorless," Wansink said.

Furthermore, Wansink found that despite consumers' assumptions that marketers and advertisers persuade us to buy things we don't need, only 16 percent of those interviewed said their abandoned products were the result of a sale or an advertisement.

What surprised Wansink most was how many consumer dollars are simply wasted by half-baked buying decisions.

Wansink found that, when he asked the consumers what they planned to do with their cabinet castaways, 57 percent said they'd eventually throw them out. He has not quantified how much money families waste on such toss-outs, other than to determine that they "represent a significant amount of waste."

But he thinks the findings of his study could help families change some of their buying habits (Read: Stop buying potted whale meat) and save money.

"People aren't stupid, but they do stupid things -- largely because they have other more important things going on in their life," said Wansink.

He suggests buying smaller amounts of "nonversatile" foods and products. He found many examples of people who bought large or multipack amounts of a product and then decided they didn't like it.

And he suggests buying substitutes. If a recipe calls for okra, buy corn. You might be more inclined to use the corn if the okra recipe falls through.

Finally, Wansink hopes more people would donate their abandoned foods to food banks, instead of discarding them.

Wansink's findings have been reported in the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. Here at the sprawling university campus in central Illinois, the Iowa native has made a name for himself as a researcher whose easily digestible theories and findings are perfect for the likes of NBC's "Today" show, where he once appeared to show how people who buy larger bags of popcorn eat more than those who buy smaller bags.

Blond and energetic, he wears deck shoes in the snow, looks like a high school basketball player and can juggle those cans of potted whale meat.

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