Why we buy salad shooters and breadmakers

A new study finds Britons hoard $18 billion in gizmos.

Simon Hunt is proud of his gadgets. From the open-sesame electric garage door to the satellite navigation gear in the car, he isn't afraid to extol the virtues of technology.

"The sign of a good gizmo," he says, enthusing about a pair of flip-flops with a bottle opener crafted into the soles, "is that you can't live without it."

Yet packed away are plenty more doodads that he and partner Deborah apparently live quite happily without. Like the popcornmaker and the fitness trampoline. Oh, and the microwave omelettemaker. Even an electric nail-file buffing system. "Get a life if you have time to use this," says Deborah.

It's a growing feature of middle-class homes like this one in southern England. Britons are accumulating piles of household gadgets that they rarely, if ever, use.

The phenomenon is of course replicated across much of the rich world (see left column for Australia's Top 10 useless doohickeys.) But it's a trend that is providing fodder for economists and psychologists. Does such "having" provide any value to the consumer, or to society? Or is it just a waste of money?

If it's the latter, then it's a big waste. Recent research calculated that Britons have accumulated almost $18 billion worth of household "white elephants" - gadgets that are rarely if ever used. That's 1 percent of the nation's GDP.

For some, it's the sandwich toaster that seemed like a good idea at the time. For others it's the electric knife that only comes out at Christmas, or the juicer which seems twice as messy as it did when demonstrated on the shopping channel.

"We are constantly buying new fads," says Niki Bolton of the online insurer esure that conducted the study. "Take the breadmaker. A few of my friends have got them. They start off making bread rolls for a few days and then give up."

Bolton admits she hoards a bit too. "I've got a sandwich toaster tucked away, and a footspa and face steamer. A lot of things like that up in the loft."

Some of these dust-gathering widgets are unwanted gifts - as much as $7.2 billion according to esure. A quarter of those surveyed said they had bought a gift that they suspected would remain in its box.

But the majority are things that people buy for themselves and then leave in the box. Like the toaster that brands "I love you" onto the side of your breakfast slice. Or the "lavnav" light that "makes the toilet safe and easy to see at night."

Richard Elliot, an expert in consumer culture at Warwick Business School in central England, says from an economics viewpoint it would be facile to dismiss such hoarding as a net waste of resources.

He says that sometimes it's the idea of the gadget rather than the material usage derived from it that is important in consumer societies. In short, it's all about the having rather than the using.

"We are consuming the meaning of the good, rather than the good itself," he says. "The theory is that if you get the right meaning, it might complete your view of yourself."

While this may not always be true of a breadmaker or waffle iron, the self-image theory is much touted in academic circles as an explanation for impulse purchases. Some studies have shown as many as 10 percent of adults in rich countries show compulsive shopping tendencies.

Mr. Elliot says, moreover, that this consumerism is an important motor for western economies. If we stopped buying trivial contraptions and things to make us feel better, then growth in rich countries would be severely impacted, he says.

Yet morally and financially, the trend may be harder to justify. It coincides with a boom in credit in Britain in recent years and a sharp rise in the number of people with debt problems. The gadget consumerism often bewilders the older generation of Britons, who came of age during the privations of the 1940s and early 50s, when you couldn't buy something unless you'd actually saved up for it first.

And from a moral viewpoint, this excess that coexists side by side with want and hardship is "a miserable thing," Elliot adds.

"Satisfaction and meaning and a general boost for the self used to come from church, or society, other people in essence," he says. "But now what you have is goods replacing people."

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