homemade holiday stocking
Friday, November 15, 2019
By Lynn Davy

Tidiness expert Marie Kondo has sold millions of books touting her KonMari Method, the “life changing magic” of clearing out the stuff in our homes. Her Netflix show often centers on the emotional struggle participants have in just letting go. Tippie marketing professors Jing (Alice) Wang and Catherine A. Cole have identified one source of the emotional struggle: loneliness.  

Often when we think of “lonely people,” we imagine those in complete social isolation. But Cole says that research on loneliness can also include that feeling of being friendless and disconnected – even temporarily.

“For example, when consumers make decisions about how to get rid of multiple possessions, perhaps when they are moving, it is a time when they are likely to feel lonely. This could make it more difficult for them to empty out a house or apartment,” says Cole.

Cole spent a lifetime researching how a consumer’s emotions can impact how they make purchasing decisions (retail therapy is real!) This new line of research looks at the home full of objects to try to understand how we as consumers go from possession to dispossession.

The jacket you wore when you got engaged. A special toy with an emotional tie. For Cole, who is close to retirement age and in the process of downsizing herself, it was when she confronted the Christmas stocking her aunt knit for her when she was a little girl. For Wang, it was when she looked at box after box of her teenage daughter’s baby clothes.

People who feel lonely are more likely to form attachments to material objects and therefore may find it harder to give an unwanted piece of clothing to Goodwill or take an old piece of furniture to the landfill. Wang and Cole are the first researchers to look at how loneliness affects dispossession. The issue has a number of potential impacts on the environment, the nonprofit sector, and even supply chain management. A spike in loneliness and a significant dip in the desire to part with unneeded items could be disruptive for nonprofit donation sites such as Goodwill, says Wang.

“Unlike forward-oriented supply chains, one unique difficulty in managing product recovery is greater uncertainty because consumers, rather than manufacturers, are the suppliers. Thus, the quality, quantity, and timing of such supplies are hard to predict,” says Cole. “Given this uncertainty, it is important to understand the factors influencing consumer dispossession decisions.”

Cole and Wang, who are also working with Tippie doctoral student Bingyan Hu, presented this research at the annual Association of Consumer Research meeting in October where it was recognized as the 2019 Best Working Paper of the Year. Both faculty members are Henry B. Tippie Research Fellows.

A version of this article is forthcoming in the Winter 2019-20 edition of Tippie Magazinea magazine for alumni and friends of the Tippie College of Business.