To Retain Or to Relinquish: Exploring the Disposition Practices of Packrats and Purgers

Robin A. Coulter, University of Connecticut
Mark Ligas, Fairfield University
ABSTRACT - In this paper, we consider packrats and purgers. Packrats are people who from a behavioral perspective, keep things and from a psychological perspective have difficulty disposing of things. Purgers seem to continually take stock in whether items are needed, and if not, typically are quite willing to dispose of them. Based on data from semi-structured depth interviews, we distinguish between packrats’ and purgers’ perceptions of themselves and each other, as well as their disposition strategies and behaviors, and emotional responses. We offer suggestions for future research in this neglected domain.
[ to cite ]:
Robin A. Coulter and Mark Ligas (2003) ,"To Retain Or to Relinquish: Exploring the Disposition Practices of Packrats and Purgers", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, eds. Punam Anand Keller and Dennis W. Rook, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 38-43.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, 2003     Pages 38-43


Robin A. Coulter, University of Connecticut

Mark Ligas, Fairfield University


In this paper, we consider packrats and purgers. Packrats are people who from a behavioral perspective, keep things and from a psychological perspective have difficulty disposing of things. Purgers seem to continually take stock in whether items are needed, and if not, typically are quite willing to dispose of them. Based on data from semi-structured depth interviews, we distinguish between packrats’ and purgers’ perceptions of themselves and each other, as well as their disposition strategies and behaviors, and emotional responses. We offer suggestions for future research in this neglected domain.

What about disposition? Although disposition is considered an integral part of consumer behavior, most would agree that it has been the focus of relatively little research. Important contributions to the disposition literature have taken a variety of forms. For example, seminal work by Jacoby, Berning and Dietvorst (1977) proposed a taxonomy for voluntary disposition behaviors, and more recently, Young and Wallendorf (1989) offered an expanded taxonomy, contemplating the personal, interpersonal and societal foci related to various methods of disposition. Some research has examined disposition in particular contexts, including garage sales (Herrmann 1997, 1995), swap meets (Belk, Sherry, and Wallendorf 1988), and flea markets (Sherry 1990). Other work has considered how life stage and life transitions might affect disposition of possessions (Andreasen 1984; McAlexander 1991; Price, Arnould and Curasi 2000; Young 1991).

Jacoby et al. (1977, p. 26) pose the question, "What factors influence the disposition choice?" In this paper, we consider two types of individuals, commonly known as packrats and purgers. Packrats (named for their rodent counterparts that collect diverse plant materials and hoard them into caves in semiarid rocky environments) are people who, from a behavioral perspective, keep things, and from a psychological perspective, have difficulty disposing of things. Purgers, on the other hand, seem to continually take stock in whether items are needed, and if not, typically are quite willing to dispose of them. In this research, we explore the packrats’ and purgers’ perceptions of themselves and each other, and examine their disposition strategies and behaviors. In the next section, we discuss literature on disposition and consider how the meaning of possessions is related to disposal practices. We then describe our methodology (semi-structured depth interviews with packrats and purgers), and present our findings. We conclude with implications and avenues for further research.


Taxonomies for Disposition Behavior

Several researchers have offered taxonomies of disposition behavior (Jacoby et al. 1977; Pieters 1993; Young and Wallendorf 1989). We attempt to integrate their perspectives in answer to the question, "What should I do with this product?" Indeed, Jacoby et al. argue that consumers contemplating disposition of a product have three basic choices: to retain the product, relinquish it temporarily, or relinquish it permanently. Keeping the product suggests that one might: 1) continue to use it for its original purpose (e.g., an older mobile phone, but moved to a secondary location in the house), 2) use it for something other than its originally intended use (e.g., old towels that serve as cleaning rags), or 3) store it for later personal use or for someone else who might need it. Relinquishing a product temporarily suggests that one might loan or rent it to someone else.

Relinquishing a product permanently suggests a multitude of alternatives. First, consumers might discard or abandon products, the former referring to socially acceptable disposition via the trashcan and the latter referring to socially unacceptable disposition such as littering. Second, consumers might choose to recycle products so that the broken down product ingredients are used to manufacture another product (i.e., resource recovery, using recycled paper to make paper towels). Third, consumers might decide to sell products either directly to another consumer at a yard sale, or to an intermediary such as a secondhand shop. A fourth alternative is to give away possessions, as donations to charities or as gifts to loved ones.

Jacoby et al. (1977) argue that an individual’s characteristics and personality profile are likely to affect one’s disposition strategies and behaviors, and much research in the disposition domain has focused on environmentally conscious "green" consumers (Balderjahn 1988; Ellen, Wiener, and Cobb-Walgren 1991; McCarty and Schrum 1993). Herein, we consider the disposition strategies of packrats and purgers.

Disposition as Related to Product Characteristics and Product Meanings

Characteristics of products indeed affect consumers’ disposition behaviors (Jacoby et al. 1977). For example, certain possessions must be discarded post-consumption. Perishable possessions have a limited "shelf life" once they are purchased and prepared for consumption. Additionally, some possessions are literally "used up" during consumption (e.g., makeup, facial tissue, detergent). As a result, it is unlikely that individuals would differ on their disposition strategies related to these types of products. On the other hand, for products that do not have limited shelf life or are not completely consumed during consumption, owners may indeed attribute various meanings to those possessions. Various research streams highlight the influence of possessions in the consumer’s life, for instance: as a vessel of personal meaning (Csikzentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981; McCracken 1986; Wallendorf and Arnould 1988), as a relationship partner (Fournier 1998; 1991), and even as an influencer of one’s identity (Belk 1988; Kleine, Kleine, and Allen 1995; Schouten 1991; Solomon 1983).

Recent research suggests that products can have both functional and symbolic meanings, depending on the consumer’s motives and goals for consuming the product (Ligas 2000). Functional product meanings refer to the product’s utilitarian attributes and characteristics, i.e., the core product and the "bells and whistles" that enable the product to perform in a specific way (Fournier 1991; Prentice 1987; Thaler 1985). Symbolic product meaning focuses on the personal, intrinsic meaning associated with products. The product gains meaning, because it is tied to some specific event (Grayson and Shulman 2000; Wallendorf and Arnould 1988), develops interpersonal qualities (Fournier 1998), or assists some way with the consumer’s identification of self to others (Belk 1988). In some cases, consumers develop emotional bonds with products and often find the items necessary for expression and communication (Fournier 1998; Houston and Walker 1996; Kleine et al. 1995). Thus, products that have meaning to consumers, either functional or symbolic, are likely to be more difficult to dispose. Indeed, one might infer that packrats attach more meaning to their possessions than do purgers. In the sections that follow, we present our method and the resultant data that explore not only this issue, but also the more central issue of the differences between these two consuming groups.




We developed an interview script to explore disposition behaviors, attitudes and perceptions of packrats and purgers. Interview probes were designed to elicit informants’ self-identification as a packrat or purger, general perceptions of packrats and purgers, typical disposition behaviors, and related thoughts and emotions. As part of a course requirement, seven students identified four family members or acquaintances (non-students, at least 18 years of age) they thought were packrats or purgers to participate in semi-structured interviews (Price et al. 2000). We aimed for an equal male/female split for both packrats and purgers.

The students facilitated initial contact with the individuals who they thought were packrats or purgers, asked each if he/she would be willing to assist in a class project, but did not reveal the specific nature of the project. Twenty-eight informants, fourteen self-described packrats (7 males, 7 females) and fourteen purgers (6 males, 8 females), volunteered for the interviews. During the course, the students were coached in interviewing techniques (e.g., how to identify "key" or "emergent" issues, when to probe for additional detail). Table 1 provides summary information for each informant.

In analyzing the data, the authors considered and coded packrats’ and purgers’ information with regard to: 1) perceptions, 2) disposition strategies and behaviors, and 3) motional reactions.


Understanding Packrats

Perceptions of Packrats. Our data suggest that most packrats (Pr) and purgers (Pu) view packrats as hoarders, messy and disorganized. The following are quips that illustrate a typical packrat:

I am a hoarder, a naturally disorganized person, but it is organization in my eyes. Occasionally I feel the need to purge and organize, but it does not last long. [Pr 8, M, 29]

My own house is messy, dirty, cluttered, crowded, full of unnecessary junk that’s never used. [Pr 9, F, 21]

Another packrat, however, refutes these stereotypical images of a packrat. For him, achieving "order" and being "physically neat" do not mean the same thing. Although this packrat does not necessarily place items in specific places, he knows where to locate everything of importance:

I am orderly, just not neat. I know where all the things are that I need; I am not disorganized. [Pr 6, M, 26]

Purgers agree, noting that packrats are less likely to be organized and more likely to have an unkempt, messy home, reporting:

A packrat is someone who just likes to store junk around the house, and who does not want to dispose of possessions. [Pu 3, M, 20]

Someone who has collections of things, who doesn=t clean often, is disorganized and has more stuff than they need. [Pu 9, M, 21]

They save everything from paper clips to whatever else. They just like messes! [Pu 12, F, 48]

Product Retention and Product Meanings. When contemplating disposing of a possession, packrats often opt to keep rather than relinquish the product. They offer a variety of explanations for their choice. First, many packrats believe that they or someone else might use the product at some future time, i.e., that the product continues to have functional value (Ligas 2000), for example:

I always think I’ll be able to use something again, or someone else will be able to use it. I am resourceful. [Pr 13, M, 51]

Purgers acknowledge that packrats store items for use in the future. However, purgers view these actions not from a future resource perspective, but rather from a financial perspective, noting:

A packrat is a cheap person who stores useless stuff and believes that it will work again, even though he knows that it won’t. [Pu 4, M, 37]

Second, packrats are self-professed use innovators (Hirschman 1980; Ridgway and Price, 1994). They are looking for different ways to use old products, as suggested by:

I am creative, and I try to find more use for my things. I am more ingenious, and [how I use my possessions] is less black-and-white. [Pr 10, F, 51]

Third, packrats are mindful of the financial investment in their possessions, and conscious of being thrifty. Contrary to the purgers’ view, packrats do not consider themselves to be "cheap;" instead, packrats often view disposition as a potential waste of money, as illustrated by the following comments:

I spent money on these items; throwing them out would be wasting. [Pr 7, M, 26]

It would be like wasting money [if I discarded the item], especially if the product is not at the end of its life. [Pr 3, F, 39]

Finally, both packrats and purgers agree that packrats often find personal and symbolic meaning in their possessions (Belk 1988; Csikzentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981; McCracken 1986; Wallendorf and Arnould 1988). The following comments provide evidence that packrats’ possessions are linked to memorable people, places, or events in their lives:

I am more sentimental. I don’t want to get rid of something, even if I don’t use it. It elicits positive memories, such as shopping with others or being with a loved one. [Pr 12, M, 29]

These items are like memories, and they remind me of my childhood and growing up. [Pr 2, F, 18-25]

These things [trinket from childhood, artwork] are important because they are about friends and family. [Pr 10, F, 51]

A packrat is a collector, someone who likes to store things and who finds meaning in everything they own. [Pu 1, F, 18-25]

A packrat is someone who is reminiscent, emotional, and careful. They live in the past. [Pu 2, F, 18-25]

Relinquishing Products. Once packrats make the decision to relinquish a possession, they become interested in finding the product a good home (Herrmann 1997; Price et al. 2000). Thus, they seem more likely to engage in donating, gifting, selling or recycling than in trashing. Examples of donating include:

I find it extremely difficult to get rid of things by throwing them out. I feel it is wasteful, plus someone else may need it eventually if I don’t. I call a specific place to donate, like Big Brothers/Big Sisters. [Pr 13, M, 51]

I donate clothing. I feel that disposing of them is a waste. [Pr 2, F, 18-25]

I give such items to Goodwill. [Pr 7, M, 26]

Packrats gift items to others when they believe that the used item could be either useful or personally meaningful to a friend or close family member. By giving an item to someone they know, packrats attempt to insure that the item’s "value" is still appreciated:

I usually end up passing it on to another relative or friend, or a close family member who can find use for it. [Pr 3, F, 39]

I practice gift-giving because I feel that there is too much value to the items, and I feel that my items will be appreciated [by others]. [Pr 5, F, 42+]

I would rather give stuff to someone I know. The last resort is to throw something away. [Pr 8, M, 29]

And in some instances, packrats sell items, often in garage sales. Satisfaction for packrats, however, does not come from making money on these items, but rather from the expectation or hope that someone else will find these items worth purchasing and using:

I sell some things, and if given the opportunity, I like to have a tag sale once a year. [Pr 11, M, 53]

Selling makes me feel more satisfied. I take care of my things and reselling makes me feel as though I’m being credited for keeping them in good condition. [Pr 12, M, 29]

The Emotions of Disposition. Because many packrats are emotionally attached to their possessions, they report on a variety of emotions when they ultimately decide to dispose of an item. For example, some packrats reported a strong sense of guilt when relinquishing an item:

At first, I have a feeling of guilt because it is tough to part with those items. I may need them again and not have them. [Pr 1, M, 42+]

I feel a sense of guilt, as if I have done something wrong. [Pr 3, F, 39]

Indeed for some packrats the connection to an item is so strong that its disposition results in the packrat sensing a void in his life.

I feel bad, because it is like something is missing. [Pr 6, M, 26]

I just don’t dispose of meaningful items. I would miss them too much. [Pr 7, M, 26]

If an item is donated or given as a gift, however, packrats tend to be more positive. By "passing the item on," packrats see themselves as not being wasteful, but instead as doing a good deed:

I feel relieved, as if I have helped someone. I can then begin the cycle of packratting over again. [Pr 4, F, 38]

Packrats in discussing the positives and negatives of disposition note their ambivalence:

I feel good because it is given to a person who could use it. There is a hole inside [me] though I am still uncertain of whether I should have kept it. [Pr 5, F, 42+]

Understanding Purgers

Perceptions of Purgers. Purging is defined as an act of cleansing of impurities, to remove by cleansing, or to rid. In contrast to the messy, disorganized packrats, purgers see themselves as neat, clean and organized. Ridding one’s self of "stuff" is seen in a very favorable light, as an accomplishment:

I am clean and not cluttered. [Pu 6, F, 18-25]

I am neat and orderly. [Pu 7, M, 60]

I’m much more neat and organized. I actually get rid of things. [Pu 12, F, 48]

Packrats compliment purgers’ orderliness, yet believe that purgers run the risk of not having a particular item when it is needed:

Purgers are neat and orderly, but they never have anything around when they need it. [Pr 6, M, 26]

A purger is someone who throws things out easily. He is an organized person, a non-saver! [Pr 11, M, 53]

Purgers and packrats disagree about their perceptions of purgers’ disposition strategies. For purgers, if an item is no longer useful, the question is why not simply get rid of it? Personal preferences and situational factors are in effect. Some purgers systematically assess what possessions they want to keep.

I keep stuff around for a little while, and then I get rid of it. [Pu 13, F, 27]

Others relinquish things because of situational factors (Jacoby et al. 1977), particularly space constraints:

I don’t keep junk around, because it will only limit what little storage space I have. [Pu 4, M, 37]

I have a lot more room. Why save anything that you don’t need? [Pu 14, F, 48]

Packrats are very derogatory of purgers, labeling them as wasteful individuals who continually need to replace items that are useful. Furthermore, packrats view purgers as people who unnecessarily waste money:

A purger is someone who is wasteful and never satisfied, because he is always getting new possessions. [Pr 1, M, 42+]

A purger is a spendthrift who does not truly understand the value or worth of an earned dollar. They are wasteful! [Pr 3, F, 39]

This is someone who wastes, especially money Items are not kept for their meaning, but just to have them. [Pr 5, F, 42+]

A purger is someone who is frivolous, wasteful, and who gets rid of things for no reason. Some are people who do throw things away that are no longer useful to them. [Pr 13, M, 51]

A purger is less economical. I feel that people who throw things away often are not getting full use out of such things. [Pr 12, M, 29]

Relinquishing Possessions. Purgers seem to attach less meaning to products than do packrats. More frequently than retaining products, they engage in a variety of disposition strategies, including discarding, selling, trading, donating and recycling. A preferred strategy for many purgers is discarding items. Purgers say that this is an efficient means of disposal:

I throw things out, because it is quick and easy. [Pu 1, F, 18-25]

I dispose of things, because I can’t be bothered with bringing my stuff to other places. [Pu 6, F, 18-25]

Other purgers don’t want to keep useless things. As evident in the following quotes, purgers are not interested in spending more time organizing, cleaning or maintaining unwanted items:

I try to minimize useless stuff. It is less things to clean. [Pu 13, F, 27]

I don’t like to keep things that I don’t use, because they take up space, collect dust [Pu 8, F, 30]

Further, in contrast to packrats, purgers typically do not consider the future use of old, used items. They see such items as a distraction and an annoyance:

There is no need to keep something once I am done using it. I probably won’t use it again, or I will just go buy it again the next time. It is useless after it gets old. [Pu 9, M, 21]

What am I going to do with this stuff? Everything has its own duty. If it doesn’t work, why keep it? [Pu 14, F, 48]

Finally, some purgers suggest that by keeping old, out-dated items, they are not in-tune with technology or with the latest trends:

I like to keep up-to-date with technology, so I discard out-dated products. [Pu 4, M, 37]

I feel I am an early adopter for new products that come out into the marketplace. [Pu 1, F, 18-25]

I am trendy and trendy people do not keep [old or used] things. [Pu 2, F, 18-25]

In some cases, purgers consider the trade-offs of discarding versus selling, donating or trading-in products. Ease of disposition continues to be a theme with purgers; if it is easy to donate, for example, then purgers may choose donating over discarding:

I throw away possessions that I no longer need, or else I store them separately from my new or most commonly used possessions. I also try to sell items that I no longer use and that still have value. [Pu 3, M, 20]

I discard unwanted possessions or trade them in for newer products or models. [Pu 4, M, 37]

I usually throw away more than I donate because it is easier. It all depends on what it is. For example, I have a 35-inch TV which I’ll donate to a tech school, because they will come to pick it up and I won’t have to lift it. [Pu 11, M, 62]

I donate stuff or dispose of it. For example, I gave dishes to a battered women’s shelter. It is less hassle. [Pu 12, F, 48]

The Emotions of Disposition. Seemingly because they don’t attach a great deal of meaning to products and they are interested in maintaining a pristine home environment, a majority of purgers experience a sense of relief upon disposing of unwanted possessions. They feel better because they no longer have "junk" lying around:

I feel refreshed, as if I got rid of old baggage; I moved on to the next phase of my life. [Pu 5, F, 42+]

I feel less congested. I don’t have a lot of unnecessary junk around the apartment. [Pu 3, M, 20]


Our findings highlight key differences between packrats and purgers. First, packrats and purgers have very different "core beings," value systems (Kahle, Beatty and Homer 1986), perspectives about product meanings (Belk 1988; Ligas 2000), and attitudes toward being future versus past focused, wasteful versus industrious. Consumers’ core being transcends both the functional (attribute) and symbolic (primarily benefit/consequence) aspects of how possessions gain meaning; it is concerned with the impact of the possession on one’s desired end-state, where the product participates in creating more experiential and self-identifying opportunities, i.e., what the product does to make the customer feel, think, and act a certain way. Being a packrat means being an individual who values not only the resource commitment, i.e., money, to gaining a possession, but also the functional and personal meanings and sentiment created by a product. The packrat consumer is "practical," in the sense that he wants the "maximum bang for his buck." The packrat is innovative, because he is constantly thinking about how to extend the life of his possessions, either by considering new ways to use old products or by ensuring that they have a new home with another consumer (Price et al. 2000; Ridgway and Price 1994). Moreover, packrats like to be surrounded by possessions that will enable them to conjure up memories of people, places, and events that are worth reliving and remembering. In contrast, purgers are "efficient," i.e., they are practical in the sense that they typically maintain items with an immediate use. Anything that does not serve a purpose in the present is waste or clutter. Purgers identify themselves as clean, uncluttered and organized. For purgers, old products have little or no future value (functional or symbolic), and they are not interested in thinking about innovative uses for old things. Additionally, purgers think of themselves as innovators, as being technologically at the forefront; thus old products are inconsistent with their images of themselves and consequently are worthy of disposition (Kleine et al. 1995).

Second, packrats and purgers, by definition, have diverse disposition practices. Essentially, packrats are more likely to keep things and purgers are more likely to relinquish them. When packrats decide to relinquish possessions, a key concern is making the product available for someone else’s use. Packrats often dispose via donation, for example to charitable causes or community projects. If the possession is more sentimental or has personal meaning, then packrats are likely to give or gift the possession to a close friend or relation, enabling packrats to maintain an attachment, although indirect, with a cherished possession, and to ensure that they are remembered by the new "caretaker" (Price et al. 2000). In some cases, packrats sell items, at garage sales for example, where the seller may actually tell stories about the items so that the products’ meanings will be evident to the new owner (Hermann 1997). In contrast, purgers’ needs for efficiency seem to drive their disposition practices; they are most likely to throw away old, unwanted, unused items. Moreover, because purgers value organization, they don’t want to be concerned with possessions that take up space and serve no purpose. Purgers will donate or sell belongings, as long as minimal effort is required.

Finally, we find differences in the emotions of packrats and purgers as related to disposition. Packrats’ possessions, because of the meanings attached and possibilities for future use, seem to bring these individuals much happiness. Their possessions trigger memories, as well as potential opportunities. In dispensing of possessions via donations, sales, or giving items away, packrats acknowledged their emotional ties to products and articulated feelings of guilt and sadness, as well as hope for the future use. In contrast, purgers expressed relief and contentment after disposition. For these consumers, "out of sight, out of mind" certainly rings true!


Our exploratory investigation offers interesting insights about packrats and purgers, and addresses a relatively neglected area of research in consumer behavior, that of disposition practices. Importantly, we believe that our research offers some interesting venues for future work and a deeper understanding of the differences between packrats and purgers. Below, we offer suggestions for future endeavors.

First, we focused on disposition strategies for packrats and purgers. An examination of both groups’ acquisition patterns would provide a broader understanding of their consumption practices. Given our findings, one might anticipate that packrats would be more likely than purgers to attend garage sales, flea markets and swap meets. Also in contrast to purgers, packrats might be mor willing to buy things that do not serve a current need, yet could be useful at some point in the future. Our findings suggest that packrats perceive purgers as wasteful, and purgers perceive packrats as cheap. Thus, future research might also address some price-related issues. Are packrats more price-conscious in their purchases than purgers? Do the two groups vary on price-quality assessments? Are warranties and money-back guarantees more important to packrats than purgers?

Second, it would be useful to consider how packrats and purgers react to product promotions and packaging. Because of their different core values, one might expect that unique messages would be appropriate in persuading packrats and purgers. We might speculate that packrats are likely to be persuaded by messages that describe the intimate, personal nature of a particular item (e.g., furniture, clothing). Moreover, message content that focuses on functional value, extended product life, or suggests creativity as related to product use may be effective in communicating with packrats. On the other hand, we might anticipate that purgers are likely to be captivated by messages that speak to innovativeness and new technologies. Seemingly purgers would not be persuaded by functional or symbolic messages. With regard to product packaging, one might argue that packrats would pay attention to packaging if it adds some personal meaning to the item, e.g., decorative cookie tin, or if it can assist in storing the original item or some other item, e.g., baseball cards in a shoe box. For purgers, on the other hand, it may be the case that they would prefer small, streamlined packaging so that they could use the packaging to store things in a way that saves space and has a neat look.

A third opportunity is to investigate the existence of product-specific packrats, i.e., packrats who keep things in one product category, but more generally exhibit purger tendencies. One might imagine that people who are very involved in a product category (e.g., a form of collecting behavior, such as comic books, cigar boxes, etc.) would tend to acquire and retain products and accessories, yet at the same time be expeditious to discard items in other less involving product categories. Online services such as Ebay make it is easier for consumers to buy, sell, and even swap less meaningful items for personally relevant ones. It would be interesting to focus on how such individuals are able to "separate" both kinds of behaviors, depending on the product category.

In sum, our purpose for this research was to explore the thoughts, feelings, and actions of packrats and purgers. Our data suggest that packrats and purgers do differ, and this difference is not based solely on their behaviors. Clearly, both types of consumers have dramatically different ways of looking not only at each other, but also at the products they consume.


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