Taking pictures of sentimental goods may help people declutter, donate more

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The cure for a cluttered home might be just a snapshot away. According to researchers, people are more likely to increase donations to second-hand nonprofit businesses if they take a picture of the item first.

"We all have at least one, but, in many cases, multiple items that we hold onto — even though we no longer use them — because the items still have sentimental value," said Karen Winterich, the Frank and Mary Smeal Research Fellow and associate professor of marketing, Penn State. "These items have some type of meaning that says, 'this is who I am' and/or 'this is who I was,' so we just don't want to let this stuff go."

In a study, researchers encouraged people to take a picture of a sentimental item before they donated it. Participants who were encouraged to take a picture donated between 15 and 35 percent more than those who did not receive a prompt to take a picture.

The researchers, who released their findings in the Journal of Marketing, said that people still may be tied to these items because possessions, memories and identity are psychologically tied together.

"What people really don’t want to give up is the memories associated with the item," said Rebecca Reczek, a co-author of the study and associate professor of marketing at Ohio State University. "We found that people are more willing to give up these possessions if we offer them a way to keep the memory and the identity associated with that memory."

A pair of high school gym shorts prompted the idea to explore this type of research, according to Winterich.

"The project got started when I realized I was keeping an old pair of basketball shorts just because they reminded me of beating a major rival basketball team in junior high," Winterich said. "I didn’t want the shorts — I wanted the memory of winning that game and that’s what I thought of when I saw the shorts. A picture can easily mark that memory for me and I can donate the shorts so someone else can use them, which is even better."

Many nonprofits rely on sales from donations of second-hand clothes and goods to run their operations. In 2014, Goodwill Industries, the largest retail resale nonprofit, produced $5.37 billion in retail sales at its 3,000 stores and online auction website, according to Forbes. Other nonprofits that sell donated goods include the American Red Cross and Dress for Success.

Meanwhile consumers can save money on storage and increase peace of mind by donating used goods to retail resale stores. According to a survey conducted by eBay and Nielson, the average American owns 50 unused items in their home, including clothing, accessories and electronics.

"From the consumer standpoint, it could be just about reducing clutter," said Winterich. "But, from the marketplace perspective, we are focusing on donating the goods because the second-hand marketplace relies on this."

The researchers advertised a donation drive before the 797 students who lived at six different university residence halls left for a holiday break. In one condition, an advertising campaign instructed students to take a picture of sentimental goods before they donated. In the other ad, participants were just asked to donate their sentimental goods.

The researchers also conducted five follow-up studies to test other variations, including whether the effect held for people selling their second-hand goods.

Initial findings suggest that taking pictures before selling second-hand goods does not have the same effect as for donating items, said Winterich, although she added this may be an area for future research.

"In one of the other studies, we looked at selling items — and this effect doesn't hold for selling," said Winterich. "We're not saying that it would never work for selling, but these sentimental goods, which hold memories and our identities, are almost perceived as sacred when they become associated with money."

Julie R. Irwin, professor of marketing, University of Texas at Austin, also worked on the study.

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Last Updated July 28, 2017