Products that help you get organized - or do they?

Storage boxes and shelves are hot commodities as Americans prove unwilling to part with 'stuff'

While walking through Times Square this past February, organizing guru Cynthia Townley Ewer looked up and saw something that surprised her. Mixed in with the ads for electronics and entertainment was a billboard for the Container Store.

"It just seemed so out of place," she says of the ad featuring brightly colored plastic organizers. "But then I realized, No, this really is a symbol of what's going on right now with the marketing of these so-called solutions to our clutter problem."

Ms. Ewer, who runs, isn't completely opposed to the use of products for storing things. But she argues they shouldn't come first. "Getting organized does not involve buying things," she says. "It involves making decisions and changing behavior."

But changing behavior can be hard, and in the meantime, Americans need help to help corral all the "stuff" - mail, remote controls, T-shirts, and ballcaps - that fills their homes.

Their counterparts in the mid-20th century had to make do with cutout cereal boxes to store their magazines, but today, thanks to manufacturers offering a wide choice of options, people have numerous stylish ways to house everything from DVDs and CDs to photographs and kitchen tools.

"There is just a huge need out there for people who want to get organized," says Donna Smallin, author of "The One-Minute Organizer Plain & Simple." "I think that we all are dealing with a lot more stuff than we need to have."

The number of organizing products has grown in the past two to three years, says Ewer, catching up with recent societal changes. Homes are bigger, for example, offering Americans plenty of places to stash things. And advances in entertainment technology ensure that where once a family maybe had one remote control, now at least three or four areon the coffee table.

People are frequently tied to their possessions emotionally - keeping them for sentimental reasons - or they get hung up on the question, "What if I need this someday?" The popularity of all the plastic containers and ottomans with hidden storage suggests to some observers that people think the products themselves will solve their inability to sort through the junk mail or part with old baby clothes.

"The reality is that a lot of people are having a tremendous amount of trouble throwing [things] away," says Stephanie Winston, a long-time organizer whose latest book is "Organized for Success."

Even though people have been told for years about the need to streamline and organize their lives, "these products would not be popular the way they are if people were in fact following the advice to throw away," she says.

As unlikely as it sounds, watching TV may be helping fuel the public's desire to visit a Bed, Bath, & Beyond or Hold Everything store. Multiple shows now take on people's clutter, including "Clean Sweep" on the Learning Channel, "Mission: Organization" on Home & Garden Television, and "Clean House" on the Style Network.

The problem is universal

Ewer notes that people aren't in and out of one another's homes in the same casual way as they once were. "You come at an invitation," she says, "and your hostess has shoved the dirty clothes into the oven, and she's pushed the dishes under the sink. And you go into her home and you say, 'Gosh, nobody lives like I do.' "

These popular TV programs help break down that notion, she explains. "People say, 'Look, I think that's even worse than my house.' And it's not so much that they're gloating, it's that they're saying, 'Wow, other people have this problem.' "

Some consumers contend that today's plastic gadgets and furniture with storage - available everywhere from Pottery Barn to Target, Home Depot to Pier 1 Imports - help push them to tackle their clutter. On a recent Sunday afternoon, New Yorkers armed with measuring tape and shopping carts descended on the Container Store in Manhattan.

"You come here, you buy cute things ... it gives you the motivation to go home and get organized," says Angela Landon, whose small studio apartment had grown too cluttered with paperwork for her taste. She got rid of a table she used to pile stuff on and replaced it with hip-looking shelving and boxes. "It feels much better and my apartment looks much cleaner," she says.

Not everyone is as confident about where to begin. A typical problem, say experts, is that people are overly ambitious about what they want to do, aiming to tackle an entire project at once, rather than trying to chip away slowly at the messy tables and closets that confront them.

Those who are truly perplexed often seek professional help, as Vincent Miles Taylor did. Mr. Taylor was one of the makeovers on the first season of the TV show "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." Another recent customer at the Container Store in Manhattan, he attributes his motivation for building wall units and buying colorful storage bins to what he learned from the "fab five" cast members on the show.

"They inspired me," he says, his shopping cart piled high with shoebox-size red, blue, and yellow plastic stowaway boxes for his kids' socks and underwear. A point that stayed with him about containers: They're meant to be useful, not for hiding unsorted stuff.

'Hey, there are the wool socks from last year'

He and his wife find things much more quickly now, he says, thanks to the labels that adorn the dozens of containers "Queer Eye" left with them. "It really works," he says of using the boxes.

Retailers say the idea of using products to get organized isn't really new. "We don't really think of storage and organization as a trend," says Melissa Reiff, an executive at the Container Store, which opened in 1978. "It has been strong for us from the very, very beginning."

She argues that one of the reasons the topic is getting more attention recently is that people's lives are more chaotic. "People have to be reasonably organized to be able to accomplish what they want to."

They're more likely to be successful, she adds, if they have taken stock before they come into the store. "We say the first thing you've got to do is take inventory."

Ewer and Winston also advise people to assess what they need before they buy any items to help them organize.

"A specialty organizing product is just a tool," says Ewer, "and if you use it the way it's intended to be used ... at the end of the process of going through your stuff and setting some limits, it's a wonderful thing. The real problem is marketing it as the process itself."

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