As I squeezed out the final lump of conditioner from the bottle with a satisfying blurp, I was seized with an urge to spike the empty container to the shower floor like a touchdown football and dance around it. “Yeah! Yeah! I conquered you, conditioner!” I shouted.
My husband, witnessing this scene while brushing his teeth, took our meticulously flattened-out tube of toothpaste and held it like a banner over his head. “And I just used up the last of the toothpaste!” he declared. “We’ve pared down our toiletries again. Mission accomplished!”
If this sounds familiar and you’re flashing back to the euphoria you felt using up that final spritz or spurt of a product, you’re in good company. As odd as it sounds, this is a common reaction to polishing off toiletries. According to Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and author of Decoding the New Consumer Mind, that reaction can stem from two places. For some, it’s about control. “There’s a lot of research that points to elevated anxiety in society today,” she says. “The antidote to feeling anxious is feeling in control. Finishing things, completing things, checking the box, all that makes us feel much more in control.” For others, it’s about virtue. “We tend to get bored more easily with products and want more innovation,” she says. “Finishing something today is actually harder than it’s ever been before. Getting through something — there’s a sense of moral good being accomplished.”
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So which camp are you in? Well, it depends on what type of consumer you are. Author Gretchen Rubin, who broke down the formation of habits in her book Better Than Before, divides buyers into two categories: under-buyers and over-buyers. Under-buyers struggle with spending money. They long for a curated collection of things. “They will always buy as little as possible,” Rubin says. She explained that they get true satisfaction from using things up thoroughly. Over-buyers are the opposite. They appreciate choice and abundance. Running out of things causes them stress and makes them feel impoverished. “They love to buy anticipatorily,” Rubin explains.
These two groups are two sides of the same beauty-consumption coin. Put in Sephora terms, under-buyers have a neat three-step skincare routine, and they want to take apart pump bottles to get that last dollop of moisturizer out. Over-buyers throw routine out the window and load up on a jumble of sheet masks and “midday essence spray,” stuffing their medicine cabinets to bursting. It’s a “less is more” vs. “more is more” mentality.
By Rubin’s classification, I’m a textbook under-buyer. My makeup bag is like a life raft just big enough for five products. If a new one comes on board, another must go overboard. For me and other under-buyers, our thrill in finishing a product is related to anxiety and control. But Yarrow is quick to point out, “though that can sound a bit negative, it can lead to great personality traits.” She explains, “It’s about not buying more than you need, finishing up the last drop, cleaning off the plate.” Getting to the bottom of a bottle helps us feel “more powerful, more masterful.”
What about over-buyers? This group taps into that mini celebration for a different reason, one with some deep history. “We’re waste-resistant,” Yarrow says. “It is really particular to the puritanical heritage of the United States. And yet we waste a lot.” Essentially, we carry around a fair amount of guilt over our wastefulness. “There’s something very satisfying about having completed an entire product when we throw out so much stuff. It’s a moral celebration,” Yarrow says. In other words, it’s goodbye guilt, hello good times.
Beauty bloggers and vloggers, over-buyers by trade, actually play out this mini-celebration online. A search on YouTube for “empties” brings up 767,000-plus results, including videos with people doing a parade through their recycling bin. These videos are a 21-gun salute: A product gets a short eulogy about its effectiveness before it’s chucked. Big-name beauty vloggers like Caroline Hirons and Zoella regularly post videos simply called “Empties,” where they spotlight the products that managed to get used up. Hirons’s videos can run more than 16 minutes in length and Zoella’s most popular video has almost two million views. “[Beauty vloggers] have so much choice,” Yarrow says. “They’re just awash with products, so if they love something so much that they actually got through it, that’s a remarkable thing. It’s a testimonial of the product.”
These videos are the cousin to “unboxing” videos, where consumers open up their brand-new gadgets or goods on camera. “The thing about unboxing is people get a thrill doing it, and other people can get a thrill watching it. It’s transferable,” Yarrow says. “You experience a portion of that emotion—watching the person dip their finger into a new pot of cream — and that sensory experience is hugely pleasurable.” Empties videos are a continuation of that consumer experience, but Yarrow sees some key differences. All the focus of unboxing videos is “directed toward the product” she says. But empties videos are capturing a more personal moment. “It’s much more internal. It’s an appreciation of the self and your own values.”
While these videos give certain products a vlogger’s seal of approval, they also show the way that over-buyer/under-buyer behavior forks. For example, in Hirons’s videos, she explains that she has a whole system for honoring her empties. “As I’ve used something up, I have a stack of Muji drawers at the side of my dressing table, and instead of throwing it in the bin, it goes in here,” she says holding up a clear plastic drawer. An under-buyer wouldn’t do this; instead, they might be quick to take a finished item and toss it to make space, but Hirons prefers to prolong her relationship with the product. Even though the party is over, over-buyers are not ready to get their coat and go home. They want to stay and reminisce about the great time they had.
In fact, while they celebrate empties on camera, true over-buyers would never risk being without their favorite products. Case in point: Hirons admits to hoarding “backups,” or the “things you always have in duplicate or triplicate, or quadruplicate in case it runs out.” That’s classic over-buyer behavior, Rubin explains: “They like that feeling of abundance.”
Both under-buyers and over-buyers have a place in the beauty world. As Rubin says, both types “have their virtues and shortcomings.” The important thing is to know which kind you are. Awareness of your tendencies can help you avoid common pitfalls. For under-buyers, we’re often making late-night drugstore runs (that toothpaste and conditioner don’t replace themselves), or we’ll get stuck at the hotel gift shop over-paying for sunscreen because we didn’t buy it before our trip. For over-buyers, they run the risk of stockpiling so much, it goes to waste. Rubin recalls an over-buyer friend who hoarded Jo Malone candles. “By the time she got around to using the fifth one, the oil had completely separated from the wax and the candle was ruined.”
Troubleshooting these types of problems mean borrowing tendencies from the opposite camp. For over-buyers, this means there’s no need to buy five years’ worth of serums. And for me, your classic under-buyer, it means maybe having a backup bottle of conditioner. After all, I’ll need a new one to conquer.
More stories about beauty products:
- 15 Cat-Themed Beauty Products That Are Purrrrfect for Kitty Lovers
- Too Faced Just Teased a Mysterious Glittery Gold Product
- 8 Succulent-Infused Beauty Products to Keep You Hydrated All Summer Long
Watch what happened when we tried the magnetic face mask: