The Dynamics of Downsizing

Gretchen Ross finds that messiness can be a plus when decluttering.

Gretchen Ross says resale stores like Berry Good Buys in Fort Worth may receive more items from a messy person compared to a tidy type. The difference is in how they approach decision-making, she found. Photo by Jill Johnson

The Dynamics of Downsizing

Gretchen Ross finds that messiness can be a plus when decluttering.

Consumer interest in downsizing is on the rise.

Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, is a cultural phenomenon, with bestselling books and a 2021 Netflix series promoting her KonMari method to eliminate clutter. The tiny home movement is gaining momentum; the Global Tiny Homes Market report estimates that the market is poised to grow by $3.57 billion by 2026. The Covid-19 pandemic also made people working from home aware of just how much space, and how much stuff, they had.

But where to begin the downsizing process? The first impulse is often to organize everything by category; indeed, Kondo advises that very step. But order can reduce the overall effectiveness of downsizing, said Gretchen Ross, assistant professor of marketing at the TCU Neeley School of Business.

In her paper “Disorder and Downsizing” in the April 2021 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, she expanded upon her dissertation as she examined the relationship between the orderliness of an environment and the decision-making process on getting rid of possessions.


Ross started her career as a certified public accountant. But after a few years, she realized she was more interested in people than numbers. “I had majored in economics and sociology,” she said. “I’ve always had this interest in the consumer as a person, what they’re thinking and feeling as opposed to just what they are buying.”

Gretchen Ross, assistant professor of marketing, co-wrote the paper “Disorder and Downsizing,” which found that disorganized people have an easier time decluttering. Photo by Jill Johnson

Ross now specializes in consumer behavior and teaches the Customer Insights class at Neeley.

“It’s definitely the most psychology-based class they’ll take as a business student,” she said. “We talk about how things like consumer emotions, motivations and memory affect our buying.”

Many Americans don’t buy just what they need; they overconsume.

As Ross and co-authors Lisa Bolton and Margaret Meloy, professors of marketing at Penn State University, lay out in the paper, “Overconsumption has filled American homes to overflowing with an accumulation of goods, as witnessed by the $39 billion revenue in self-storage rentals and the 2021 projection of home organization product sales to $11.8 billion. This backdrop begs an interesting question: What is a useful approach to downsizing?”


Ross and her co-authors launched their study with the assumption that consumer beliefs would favor an ordered vs. disordered setting when selecting items to downsize.

In general, orderliness has positive associations in society. In the paper, they cite studies that tie an individual’s tidiness with morality and greater self-control.

Yet across nine studies, Ross and her co-authors found that consumers retained fewer items when choosing from a disordered set.

Whether students had to narrow down which saltwater taffy flavors to keep from a bag in a lab or a student’s family member had to pick which clothing items to downsize in their home during the Covid-19 pandemic, subjects consistently kept fewer items when they were presented in a messy manner.

“It sounds counterintuitive,” Ross said. “But when you have a tidy pile, you actually make more comparisons.” Comparison facilitates justification for retention. For example: This pair of jeans is my favorite darker pair, while that pair is my favorite lighter pair. So I will keep them both.

“When things are messy, you pick things up one at a time and make a decision on that item’s own merits,” Ross said. “It leads to keeping fewer items.” For example: I don’t wear this pair of jeans much anymore, so I will get rid of it.”

“Gretchen has unique insight into loss aversion — how people react and adjust to experiencing a loss of income or other resources,” said Bolton, her co-author. “This was valuable to us in understanding how people might react to the loss involved in downsizing their belongings.”

“Overconsumption has filled American homes to overflowing with an accumulation of goods, as witnessed by the $39 billion revenue in self-storage rentals.”
“Disorder and Downsizing” in the April 2021 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research

The researchers also found that if a person is waste-averse, they are even less likely to downsize, especially if working from an ordered set.

“Waste aversion accentuates the impact of disorder on downsizing by dialing up both the tendency to make comparisons within category and the tendency to resolve decisional conflict by retaining items,” the paper says.

“Gretchen is incredibly organized, pays attention to the details in any data set, is rigorous in her approach, persistent in drilling down on odd results and recognizes patterns in data that provide her with additional insights,” said co-author Meloy.


Ross said that “Disorder and Downsizing” has important implications for industries involved in downsizing. As they started their research, the co-authors surveyed members of the National Association of Productivity & Organizing Professionals. These professional organizers were interested in how best to tailor the advice they give their clients.

If consumers are more effective in downsizing, donations could increase for secondhand and thrift stores, whose sales, as cited in the paper, are projected to grow 50 percent larger than those for fast fashion within the next 10 years. In fact, Ross has already launched a round of research into how consumers respond to messiness in secondhand stores.

“People think there’s this possibility that they’ll find hidden treasure when it’s messier,” she said, “but they do find it riskier.”

Ross’ paper resonated with the editors of the Journal of Consumer Research. She won the journal’s Ferber Award, given to the best dissertation-based article published in the journal during the year.

“People seem very interested in our research, which took on more significance during the pandemic when people had extra time on their hands to downsize,” Ross said. “I think it led to a growing interest in decluttering and may have positive effects on sustainability.”