The Case of the Dusty Stair Climber: a Taxonomy and Exploratory Study of Product Nonuse


Amanda B. Bower and David E. Sprott (1995) ,"The Case of the Dusty Stair Climber: a Taxonomy and Exploratory Study of Product Nonuse", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 582-586.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 582-586


Amanda B. Bower, University of South Carolina

David E. Sprott, University of South Carolina

The current research is concerned with product nonuse. Specifically, the research asks why a consumer would actively obtain products that are either never used or perhaps are used on a single occasion. A taxonomy of product nonuse is developed which is based broadly on whether the driving force behind the nonuse is primarily due to forces external to or influences from within the individual consumer. The research includes exploratory data that provides support for the developed taxonomy.


Who among us has not bought a sack of potatoes that went bad and unused in the cupboard or bought a stationary bike that sat in the corner of the bedroom, only to become an overpriced clothes hanger? Consumer experiences such as these are examples of product nonuse. Product nonuse can be observed in a variety of product categories, from perishables (e.g., potatoes, lettuce, yogurt) to durables (e.g., exercise equipment). The phenomenon may also be observed in soft goods categories (e.g., clothes, shoes) and services (e.g., gym memberships).

Product nonuse is broadly defined to occur when the consumption of a product fails to occur after it is obtained. Implicit in this definition are a number of assumptions and terms that need further clarification. First, the preceding definition implicitly assumes that at the time of purchase the buyer does have the intention of consuming the product. This self-evident assumption is provided only to clarify the domain of inquiry. Second, by nonuse we mean that the product is not being used as intended at the time of purchase (e.g., the stationary bike that was purchased to be ridden but is draped in clothes).

Does nonuse of a product necessarily have to be defined as never having used the product? It is unnecessarily restrictive to conceptualize nonuse in such extreme terms. For example, assume the exercise bike was used twice a week for a month (or less) until the consumer ceased to ride the bike at all for an extended period, say a year or more. Such a pattern of use would not fall within the preceding zero-use definition, although such an occurrence would be considered as product nonuse. Therefore, we adopt a somewhat less restrictive definition of nonuse.

A product is considered to be nonused if it has not been used at all, or if it has been used a few times, whereby the period of use is followed by nonuse. The first condition is clear and needs no further explanation. The second condition considers both the amount and pattern of use of a product. That is, product nonuse is also conceptualized as a discontinuous function with product use being confined to a finite and limited length of time, which is then proceeded by a period of nonuse. Whereas, a product that is used continuously (although less than expected) for an extended period of time is not, according to our conceptualization, a nonused product.

Consider the following example illustrating these distinctions between product use and product nonuse. Three different purchasers each obtained an exercise bike. All three purchased the bike with the expectation of riding it five times a week. Assuming 6 months of ownership, Purchaser 1 has ridden the product about two times every week. On the other hand, the bike belonging to Purchaser 2 has been entirely neglected, while Purchaser 3 rode the bike for the first two weeks (at 5 times per week) and then stopped riding the bike entirely. Product nonuse is considered to have occurred in regard to Purchasers 2 and 3, but not Purchaser 1.

To further clarify the domain of inquiry, several additional points about what is and is not considered to be a nonused product need to be addressed. First, it is recognized that many products are characterized by a declining amount of use, or are used until the person, for example, changes life stages. A child will probably ride his bike less as he gets older. Because that bike is not used now does not mean it was not well used before. The difference between used and nonused products is that in the latter, any use will occur within a limited amount of time after obtainment, and then that use rapidly declines.

Second, this conceptualization of product nonuse does not include those products that can be reused but are purchased with the intention of a single consumption occasion. For example, prom dresses are expensive, non-perishable, and can be used multiple times, but are bought with only one use in mind.

Third, we are not concerned here with those products that were involuntarily obtained by the consumer (i.e., unrequested gifts). The only types of gifts included in our conceptualization are those that are actively sought. Our respondents are undergraduate students who are still primarily dependent on their parents. Therefore, when asking for a gift for Christmas, birthday, etc. we are assuming that they recognize that they are actively guiding the choice of the product.

Finally, we do not mean to imply that there is single, identifiable point at which a product is used or nonused. Our conceptualization of product nonuse is meant to provide a guideline for identifying those characteristics which are indicative of nonuse. It is recognized that there may be cases where determining the existence of nonuse may be difficult.


Taxonomic Development

Prior to data collection, a classification of nonuse was generated from researcher introspection in order to aid in the interpretation of the data. The proposed taxonomy is based broadly on whether or not the reasons for nonuse are beyond the control of the consumer, environmental factors, or within the control of the consumer, decision factors. Because the goal of creating this classification was to better understand the domain of inquiry, these categories were not meant to be either mutually exclusive or all encompassing.

The data are congruent with the initial categories. Responses were judged individually by the two researchers, and any conflict in categorization was resolved by discussion. Further, the data not only provided a better understanding of major categories but also suggested subcategories.

Respondents and Procedure

The sample consisted of 68 undergraduate business students. One questionnaire was illegible and dropped from further consideration. Respondents were informed that the purpose of the research was to explore why people purchase products that they never use. Further, they were told that if they were unable to think of a case of their own product nonuse, then they need not feel obligated to complete the questionnaire. All students were given class credit regardless of their ability to respond. Three examples of product nonuse involving clothing (shoes), food (lettuce), and fitness equipment (club membership) were provided to clarify the respondents' task.


Following the nonuse examples, the respondents were presented with a series of open-ended questions. These asked for a product description, when it was purchased, the price, the amount of any price reductions, the extent of use, why it was bought, why it wasn't used, and what happened to it. Following these questions were two Likert-type items (7 to 1 scale). These are: "If you had to make this purchase again, would you do so?" (definitely yes/ definitely no), and "How satisfied were you with this purchase?" (very satisfied/ very unsatisfied). The next two questions were dichotomous and referred to the unused product described in the open-ended portion of the questionnaire. The first asked if they had ever purchased other items related to that product, while the second asked if those products had also been nonused. The final two questions requested the respondent's age and gender.

Sample Characteristics

Sixty-seven percent of the 67 respondents were male (n=45) and 33% (n=22) were female, with an average age of 22.6 years. The wide variety of reported products were separated into one of 7 categories: (1.) clothing (46.3%, n=31, e.g.; shoes, dresses, ties); (2.) exercise equipment or services (9%, n=6, e.g.; weight machines, fitness club memberships); (3.) sporting goods (10.4%, n=7, e.g.; bat, bicycle); (4.) music related products (4.5%, n=3; CDs); (5.) food related products (6%, n=4, e.g.; yogurt, lettuce); (6.) technological products (6.0%, n=4, e.g.; television, computer equipment); and (7.) miscellaneous products (17.9%, n=12, e.g.; contact lenses, walkie talkies). [Because the examples provided may have primed related instances in the respondents' memories, this may have artificially increased the number of cases in the categories of clothing, food, and fitness equipment.] The average price of the products purchased was $72.67, the minimum price paid was $0.10 for lettuce and a maximum of $870.00 for an exercise machine.

Before nonuse occurred, the products were used an average of 3.5 times. Respondents using the product two or less times accounted for 63.5% (n=40) of the sample. Specifically, 20.9% (n=14) did not use the product at all, 19.4% (n=13) used the product once and 19.4% (n=13) used the product twice. The maximum amount of usage was 20 times for a bicycle, a CD, and a pair of contact lenses. Since they exhibited the discussed pattern of nonuse these products will be included in the data analyses.

Almost 84% (n=56) of the products were kept by the respondent. This is interesting considering the average product was purchased 76 weeks ago. The remaining respondents either sold the product, threw it out, gave it away, or it expired.

Respondents, on average, would not make the purchase again (mean=2.3, s.d.=1.9) and were unsatisfied with the purchase (mean=2.7, s.d.=1.7). Sixty-one percent of the respondents (n=41) purchased items related to the nonused product, of whom 75.6% (n=31) felt that they did not adequately use them.


Environmental Factors

There exist situational forces that can be responsible for product nonuse and are outside of the consumer's control. These situational forces can be either external or directly related to the product.

Sources external to the product. These situational influences are related to changes in the external environment that prevented the purchaser from using the product in the intended environment. For example, if a woman buys a non-refundable airline ticket but becomes ill and is unable to use the ticket to go on vacation, the ticket is considered nonused.

Approximately 7% (n=5) of the respondents provided information on products that fell into disuse due to sources external to the product and not within the control of the respondent. The environment physically altered two of these products so that they could no longer function. For example:

Male, 22, tennis shoes: I recently purchased a pair of running shoes because my old pair were worn out and looked terrible. I played golf in the rain in them one day and after that they smell and if I ever wear them again they will make my feet stink.

The remaining products (n=3) became unusable due to environmental changes such that the product would no longer have a context in which to be utilized. For example, one respondent asked for and received a 10 speed bicycle for his 15th birthday. However:

Male, 21, bicycle: We stopped using bikes because it was too cold to ride around in the winter, and when spring rolled around my friends had their drivers license, and we no longer needed bikes.

Sources related to the product. Nonuse may also be due to some failure of the product. For example a product may break very shortly after purchase. Even if the consumer has the opportunity to replace that product with another, the first product remains unused.

Thirteen percent (n=9) of the sample provided nonuse experiences related to product factors. There were a variety of products in this category (e.g., hair conditioner and computer equipment).

Male, 22, yogurt: I usually buy [brand A] blended yogurt, but decided to try the [brand B yogurt] for the different flavors. I like yogurt so I purchased [brand B]. . . The product had to be mixed and the fruit was hard and not blended like [brand A]. The date expired and I threw it away.

Decision Factors

There may be situations where there is a conflict between the decisions to purchase and to consume, and that conflict is due to some inconsistency within the consumer. Why would a person purchase a product and then later decide against using it? The literature suggests the potential of preference fluctuations between the purchase and the consumption of the product. As Simonson (1990) states, the consumption of a product often occurs at a different time than the decision to purchase. Therefore, a person must try to predict their preferences at the time of consumption (Kahneman and Snell 1990). Ironically, Kahneman and Snell found that people are very bad at determining what their future preferences will be. Similarly, Simonson (1990) concludes that people are aware that they are unsure of their future preferences, and have some doubt in determining what those future preferences might be. The fact that future preferences could be somehow different than the ones currently held is the basis of this article. The decisions to purchase and to consume are two different behaviors with each potentially having two different sets of motivations. Nonuse can stem from a consumer's failure to either correctly evaluate the product prior to purchase or due to some desire based on misevaluated goals.

Two categories of nonuse due to decision factors were identified. The first includes those situations where the consumer began the decision making process based on a direct encounter with the purchase situation (e.g., a major price reduction). The second category contains all of those purchases that were intended to satisfy some (possibly enduring) goal. The primary difference between the two is that in the latter there is some specific need or want driving the search and evaluation of the product.

Specific to Purchase. This category refers to those situations where the person made the decision to purchase as a result of factors contained within the purchase situation. An example of this type of nonuse situation is a woman's decision to buy a pair of shoes due to her friend's encouragement at the point of purchase.

As previously stated, the decision to purchase and the decision to consume may be two different decisions with different sets of decision criteria. An inconsistent evaluation of a product may occur when those decision criteria of consumption are either not present or underweighed in the decision to purchase. Additionally, those decision criteria that motivated the purchase may not be present or are underweighed at the time of consumption.

Hoch and Loewenstein (1991) explored time-inconsistent preferences; that is a person's short term preferences can conflict with preferences that are consistent with long term goals. They identified that people do engage in behavior that is often regretted after the fact and that would have been rejected if they had thought about it more objectively.

The following are some of the reasons why the weighting of decision criteria may be inconsistent between prepurchase and post purchase of the product.

1. Social Influence. This influence refers to any effect that people such as friends or sales associates can have on the consumer's decision to purchase a product. Six percent (n=4) of the respondents provided a product nonuse experience related to social influence at the time of purchase.

Each of these respondents indicated a form of reference group pressure as a potential reason for the subsequent nonuse. There is evidence that reference groups can influence consumer purchase behavior (cf. Bearden and Etzel 1982). Consider the following discussions of two different coats.

Male, 22, coat: When I got it, every one had one and so I got it because of that. . I really hated I bought that damn coat. It matched nothing I already had and the brown was like a rust color...When the style left my coat went along with it.

Male, 21, 'Michael Jackson Jacket': In grade school I bought a jacket...I thought it was the coolest thing at the time. I guess I thought other kids would like it too. I was ridiculed by kids. They obviously did not have the same ideas about Michael Jackson I did. It was put into my closet and I have never seen it since. My mom actually bought it. I begged her. We even left the store and came back to get it.

Nonuse appears to manifest itself when social pressure is the opposite of personal preference and the salience of each changes between the time of purchase and the time of consumption. This can occur in two different ways. First, when social pressure is more salient at the time of purchase and favors the product, then purchase will occur. However, if personal preference is then more salient at the time of consumption and does not favor the product, then consumption will not occur (e.g., the brown jacket). Similarly, if it is personal preference that is more salient at the time of purchase and is favorable to purchase, but social pressure is more salient at the time of consumption and contrary to that evaluation then consumption will not occur (e.g., 'Michael Jackson' jacket).

2. Price Savings Influence. This category includes those purchases where a primary motivation for the purchase was the prospect of saving money. Schindler (1989) calls this influence "smart-shopper" feelings. "The term 'smart-shopper' feelings will be used to refer to the ego-related affect which may be generated in a consumer by a price" (p.448). These feelings can cause the buyer to alter his or her perception of other attributes in order to rationalize the purchase. They may also distract the consumer from the consideration of other attributes (Gardner and Strang 1984).

The strongest support for any of the categories was provided for the price-related influences. Almost 27% (n=18) indicated that the nonused product was purchased at a discounted price, and many indicated that this was a primary reason for purchase.

Female, 28, shoes: I purchased the product because it was on sale and I thought it was something that I could always use sometime or later. I stopped [using the product] because they were high heels and I usually wear flats everyday.

Female, 21, skirt: I thought I needed a skirt like that, also it was only $7.00 and I just bought it. I got home and decided that I didn't really like it. It is in my closet with the tags still on it.

Female, 20, jacket: I just wanted to buy it. It was on sale and I thought it would look good with jeans. It looked stupid. The color was totally wrong and it was too short.

The preceding examples supports the contention of Schindler (1989), because it appears that the opportunity of a good deal somehow impacted the respondents' judgment of other product attributes. Each of the respondents purchased the product for a specific set of reasons (including a price reduction and other attributes), but when the person's failure to use the product was considered, the only reason that could still justify the purchase was the reduced price.

3. Potential Loss of Opportunity. A consumer may make a purchase that is primarily driven by the perceived limited availability of the product. For example, if the store is almost out of the product, the consumer may recognize the limited opportunity of owning this product. As in the case of the smart-shopper, the consumer's "judgment" of other product features (e.g., fit, style) may be lessened.

Male, 20, hammock: While in Mexico, I was on a mission trip, and we slept in hammocks. I thought it was unique as well as comfortable; so I bought one..._and planned on using it in my room or hanging it in the yard. I guess because of two different cultures, there you need it and here it's just something extra.

4. Other Influences. Six responses could be broadly classified as related to decision factors; however, there was not enough information in their responses to provide any deeper insights into the potential cause of the nonuse.

Purchase Inspired by Consumer Goals. In the previous category, purchase of the nonused product was a direct result of an encounter with the purchase situation and no forethought went into the purchase. Purchases of nonused products in this category, however, are inspired by some goal of the individual.

There appear to be two different types of goals in the data. The first type were product-specific, narrow goals (n=5). By this we mean, purchase of this specific product would solve a specific need.

Female, Age 21, jacket: Coming down [South] I needed a jacket that was lighter than a leather jacket but was warm enough for [the South's] winter.

She discovered she had a need for a specific product, and had the goal of satisfying that need. The importance of separating this type of purchase from the previous category is the recognition of the difference between a planned and an unplanned purchase.

The other, more predominant type of goal that motivated product purchase were general goals. General goals could be satisfied by any number of products, and the purchase of this product was an attempt to reach that goal. Very often (n=11) that goal was related to weight loss or getting into shape.

Female, 20, gym membership: I wanted to get in shape, lose weight, be healthy.

Many of these goals appear to stem from a perceived possible self. According to Morgan (1993) an individual can attribute certain consumption behaviors to the attempt to achieve a positive, possible self. A possible self is one that represents, "...what we could become, what we would like to become and, most importantly, what we are afraid of becoming" (Markus and Nurius 1986, p. 954). Possible selves are drawn from past experiences, present activities, and the envisioned self in the future. Therefore, as Morgan (1993) proposes, certain consumption behaviors are related to our attempt to achieve those positive selves that we prefer to become, as well as avoid undesirable selves that we could become. Therefore, the purchase of exercise equipment might bring a woman closer to her positive possible self because of its perceived potential. It is this "hoped-for result" that motivated several of these purchases.

Male, 21, Gym membership: To get fit and get a little bigger and stronger. It would make me feel good about myself in the way I look and feel.

There appear to be two major reasons that purchases intended to satisfy goals fell into nonuse. (In the case of some responses, the cause of nonuse could not be determined.)

1. Product Dissatisfaction. The product did not fail or break, and the product is still able to perform the task it was intended to perform. However, in the evaluation of the product at purchase, the consumer somehow failed to correctly select a product s/he would be happy with.

Female, 21, jacket: Everyone seems to own this jacket and I feel I bought it too big...The main reason is that I don't care for the way the product looks on me anymore.

Female, 23, jeans: I wanted a pair of jeans that were 'fitted'- (not to look tight). My boyfriend was a big influence for owning this product ('sexy'). I thought the jeans would make my 'backside' look good, but instead the front (stride) looked long. [I stopped wearing them] because of the way they made me look long and straight from the front.

Female, 21, beach cruiser: I bought it and about 3 months later I found a bike that I liked better. This happened all the time. It was too trendy & I became bored with it quickly.

2. Goal Motivation. When products were purchased to achieve a goal, the motivation to achieve that goal seemed to be a crucial element in the motivation required to use the product.

Female, 22, wok: I wanted to try and cook stirfry [but I] didn't take time out to use it.

In some cases the product was purchased as a means to achieve that goal, and in others it was purchased as an incentive. For example, eight people purchased some sort of equipment that they felt would help them to lose weight or get into shape. Price ranged from $10 up to $870, with an average price of $230. Given reasons for nonuse varied little.

Female, 23, exercise video and weights: I got lazy and busy.

Female, 21, step-climber: Didn't like it. Too much work.

Male, 22, fitness club membership: Didn't have time or was lazy.

Male, 21, gym membership: Couldn't get in the groove to lift.

Obviously people are not going to spend an average of $230 and then neglect it if they were aware that they would be "lazy and busy." In many cases, the respondents cited their busyness as a primary reason for the nonuse of the product. However, based on reported products that were bought as incentives for achieving the goal, that busyness seems to indicate a lack of motivation and a lack of determination to achieve the goal.

Three females bought clothes with the intention of providing themselves with that determination to achieve their goal.

Female, 20, jeans: I purchased a pair of jeans- a little snug. The intention was to lose weight to fit into them... I guess it was to satisfy reaching a goal. It was an inspiration to work out.

Female, 20, dress: Purchased a size too small b/c I wanted to lose weight & never did...thought it would give me that incentive to lose the weight.

Female, 20, skirt: My ingenious idea was that I'd lose a few pounds and fit into the size 4 rather than gain a few and fit into the size 6. Obviously, I never lost the weight so the skirt was snug.

Not only did these women provide themselves with a conceptual possible self to eventually fit into, they bought physical molds to measure that fit. These articles of clothes were to inspire them to achieve a goal. Unfortunately, they lacked the motivation or determination to achieve that goal, and because the product did not fit, it went nonused.


All respondents (n=67) recounted an incident of product nonuse indicating that the phenomenon is fairly widespread. The fact that the students were informed that they were not obligated to invent an example if they were unable to think of one provides further support for the robustness of this phenomenon.

There is some evidence in the data that tends to suggest that nonuse behavior may be a common tendency among the respondents. Nearly half of the respondents indicated that they have nonused products related to the focal product.

Female, 39, mail-order blouse: I purchased many items the same way (mail order) before and I was happy with them. This time I was satisfied with the product (quality, color, etc.) but I just never wanted to wear it; somehow it didn't agree with my style, personality? It happened to me before with some other items (clothing) both purchased by mail, telephone or in the stores and all that I can say is that while being attracted to them in the very beginning, I lost interest in them after wearing them once. Again, they didn't agree with me or vice versa!

The current research indicates a number of possible reasons for product nonuse to occur. Each of these potential sources of product nonuse have a number of interesting implications. None so striking, perhaps, as the case of the effects of discount pricing on subsequent product nonuse. As a field, marketers, at times, tend to concentrate on the effect of price discounts on the sales of products. However, the current research expands that perspective, that is, what is the continuing effect of these pricing discounts on the consumer. Apparently some individuals may fail to use sale items once they are brought home.

Similarly, there are a number of interesting implications with regard to the product nonuse associated with exercise related products. For example, consider the apparent success of those January advertising campaigns that attempt to persuade consumers to purchase exercise products to lose those extra holiday pounds. Most of these persuasion attempts rely on appealing to the consumer's desire of an ideal self. However, it appears that consumers in such situations may not only fail to attain the possible self, but fail to use the product as well.

There are two limitations in this current investigation of product nonuse. The restricted sample, college age students, utilized by the current research may limit the generalizability of these findings. However, due to the exploratory nature of the research, the implied directions for future work are still significant and provide a good starting point for future research. Further, although the results suggest some possible mechanisms of product nonuse, this is not a complete listing of all potential causes.

There are number of future opportunities related to product nonuse. Qualitative research should explore the breadth of the phenomenon to gain a better understanding of possible underlying causes as well as underlying dimensions of the taxonomy.

We have discussed the conceptualization of "limited amount of time" as a continuum from limited to extended. While we fail here to provide an objective criteria, future research may explore people's perceptions of what amount of product use time must pass before they do not feel that the product has been neglected. Further, it would be useful to relate that to the cost of the product, the expectations of the product at the time of purchase, as well as product obtrusiveness (i.e., it is easier to hide and ignore unworn shoes than it is a stationary bike).


Bearden, William O. and Michael J. Etzel (1982), "Reference Group Influence on Product and Brand Purchase Decisions," Journal of Consumer Research, 9 (September), 183-194 .

Gardner, Meryl P. and Roger A. Strang (1984), "Consumer Responses to Promotions: Some New Perspectives," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 11, ed. Thomas C. Kinnear, Ann Arbor, MI: Association for Consumer Research, 420-425.

Hoch, Stephen J. and George F. Loewenstein (1991), "Time-Inconsistent Preferences and Consumer Self-Control," Journal of Consumer Research, 17 (March), 492-507.

Kahneman, Daniel and Jackie Snell (1990), "Predicting Utility," in Insights in Decision Making, ed. Robin M. Hogarth, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Markus, Hazel and Paula Nurius (1986), "Possible Selves," American Psychologist, 41 (9), 954-969.

Morgan, Amy J. (1993), "The Evolving Self in Consumer Behavior: Exploring Possible Selves," in Advances in Consumer Research Vol. 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 429-432.

Schindler, Robert M. (1989), "The Excitement of Getting a Bargain: Some Hypotheses Concerning the Origins and Effects of Smart-Shopper Feelings," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 16, ed. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 447-453.

Simonson, Itamar (1990), "The Effect of Purchase Quantity and Timing on Variety-Seeking Behavior," Journal of Marketing Research, 27 (May), 150-162.



Amanda B. Bower, University of South Carolina
David E. Sprott, University of South Carolina


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22 | 1995

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