Too Perfect to Touch

by Katy on June 13, 2011 · 23 comments

I just finished re-reading one of my favorite books, which is Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping by Paco Underhill. Although this book is targeted to retailers, marketers and advertisers, (not non-consumers such as myself) I find the information in this well written book to be utterly fascinating. Because, what is shopping besides yet another extension of human behavior? Underhill has spent his career quietly observing shoppers as they invariably veer to the right, touch store items, read (or don’t read) carefully constructed signage and stop shopping the moment they experience a “butt brush.”

My copy of Why We Buy is from Goodwill, and is actually a 1999 edition, which means that it’s missing the updated information about the internet age. But that’s okay, because the content that interests me is not the specifics about retailing, (put carry baskets at a midpoint in the store when customers’ hands get full, not next to the front door where customers have no need for them.) but how shopping behaviors correlate to life’s behaviors.

One point that I noticed for the first time with this reading was how Underhill had worked with a chain, (Subway?) that had a display of bagged chips for customers to choose from while waiting in line to pay. When the display was perfectly arranged, people did not pull anything off, and it was only when the workers were instructed to muss it up a bit that customers began feeling comfortable about grabbing a bag. People did not want to mess with a perfect display. The perfect display was off putting and to be left alone.

This too perfect to touch phenomenon made me start thinking about how this translates into my non-consumer world. I have noticed that when my somewhat formally decorated home is too clean and tidy, (worry not, it’s a rare occurrence!) that guests seem unable to relax. They sit bolt upright on the couch and do not appear to enjoy their time in my home, and it’s only when the house shows signs of life that guests are able to loosen up. When I think about how I feel in other people’s homes, I am certainly more comfortable when they show imperfections of life, rather than looking like a magazine shoot. I worry that my clumsy self might mess something up when houses are too perfect.

Of course, I won’t start deliberately mussing up my home to make it more inviting, as this entropy can happen without any deliberate action on my part. Yes, my house is tidier than it’s ever been, but it will still never look like it sprung from the pages of Dwell magazine. But Paco Underhill has made me realize that nobody wants to touch a display of perfection, and that many (most?) of us feel more comfortable when our environments show signs of life.

Does a perfect environment make you feel like a bull in a china shop? Or perhaps you can’t relax until everything is perfect? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”


{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Jessica June 13, 2011 at 9:30 am

I agree that when a home is too perfect I feel uncomfortable in it. I think this originated from the difference between my grandparents’ houses. My mom’s parents’ house always had lots of people and toys all over the place, and my cousins and I would run around and play. My dad’s parents’ house was small and had lots of breakable stuff precisely arranged around the house, and we were hardly allowed to move while we were there.

On the other hand, I feel uncomfortable if a house is too messy. My husband and I went to his friends’ house once, and all the chairs and tables were covered with papers and odds and ends. I didn’t feel like I could move anything to sit down; I just felt overwhelmed by all the stuff everywhere.


Queen Lucia June 13, 2011 at 10:27 am

I also experience this with guests. My home is far from perfect and full of second hand (and I don’t mean antique!) furniture, but because we don’t have a lot of clutter (and I admit, I have a certain way with home beautification), people assume that I am anal retentive about housekeeping. They have trouble loosening up and admonish their kids continually to be careful. So I make an extra effort to reassure everyone that they can keep their shoes on, a spill is no big deal, the kids can run, go ahead and put your feet up on the coffee table, etc. In fact, one reason we have second hand furniture is so we DON’T have to worry so much!


asrai June 13, 2011 at 11:35 am

This is interesting to me as we get our house ready to sell and I try to get everything cleaned up. We have too much stuff.
But perhaps getting it picture perfect isn’t the way to go either.


Jennifer @ Fast, Cheap, and Good June 13, 2011 at 11:41 am

This is a challenge for me because I am really much more comfortable in a very organized environment, and my “guest space” in the house is full of color, pattern, and texture but is kept extremely neat. And then, when people refuse to go there, my feelings are hurt because I want them to enjoy the best I have to offer. Hmm.


Ellie June 13, 2011 at 12:10 pm

Well, it’s nice to know it’s not just me!

Two sets of my inlaws (my parents-in-law and my sister-in-law) are what I would call “neat freaks”. Their houses are always PERFECT. There is never a bit of mess or clutter or a thing out of place in their homes. And everyone is ALWAYS expected to remove their shoes before entering, no exceptions. Both of their homes look like magazines.

And I hate visiting either of these houses. Absolutely HATE it, to the point where I actually minimize socializing with these people as much as possible, in no small part because I find just being in their homes to be STRESSFULL! True, there are other issues (let’s just say that these people’s value systems are – perhaps not coincidentally – the most unlike mine of everyone in the extended family), but I still think that the super-neat, magazine-perfect homes play a part. I just don’t like visiting perfect homes…I always feel like I have to be “on guard” against doing soemthing “wrong”, and if (heaven forbid!) I actually DID spill or muss soemthing, I feel like they’d be really mad at me, even if they didn’t SAY it.

True, I am also uncomfortable in truly dirty homes – things like overflowing trash, mounds of pizza boxes, dirty toilets, sticky surfaces, and bad smells are pretty off-putting.

But given the choice between “perfect” and a bit messy/a little shabby, I’ll take a bit messy and/or a little shabby any day. (Maybe because I feel that the people who live there aren’t as materialistic?) At any rate, at least I’ll be able to relax!


Katy June 13, 2011 at 1:51 pm

I am uncomfortable even reading about your in-laws’ houses.



imelda June 13, 2011 at 8:07 pm

Lol, not allowing shoes indoors is the norm in at least half of the world!


Ellie June 14, 2011 at 5:29 am

Regarding the shoes:

One, yes, it is the norm in many parts of the world – but not this one. Nor is it a part of their ethnic culture, or a part of the ethnic cultures of the people they socialize with. So they are forcing people to conform to what for them is a non-normative behavior – which makes some people uncomfotable. Two, it is also hard on elderly people with foot issues who rely on their shoes for support – and again, no exceptions are made.


Indigo June 13, 2011 at 1:16 pm

They say if you don’t want to do a lot of cleaning after a party you should clean everything before, since everyone is careful not to be the one to mess things up. If you enter my classroom everything is very carefully organized, but the furniture is also very well worn since it is an older school. The result, the students can work but they tend to be cleaner when the room is obviously organized, if I let it slide a little, they get messy and quick.

My apartment is well organized but in that well worn way that leave it welcoming.


Katy June 13, 2011 at 1:50 pm

Interesting . In my family we call the tidiness after a party “leftover clean.”



Erin June 14, 2011 at 6:31 am

The classroom is a great example of learning respect for communal spaces, not only the “teacher’s” space. When I ran a home daycare the children knew that their basement was their’s. If they made a mess, they had to tidying it up. Obviously I would help guide, pitch in an extra hand and do the cleaning.


Lorraine June 13, 2011 at 3:13 pm

I agree with feeling uncomfortable in a too clean or too messy environment – extremes just don’t work for me. Also, I have an in-law who makes me uncomfortable because when she hosts a family gathering, she wants everything perfect – and visibly stresses out about it. You know she’s worked like a fiend before we got there and it makes me feel bad for her. I can’t relax while watching her nervously cleaning up while she’s serving food and before the last person is done with their meal.


Ann June 13, 2011 at 5:53 pm

I’m sure it’s not just a perfect environment that scares people off, but perfect presentation.
I’m sure that some of my clients pick me because I’m not as polished, or glamorous, or attractive as other celebrants they interview.
I think they feel comfortable with me, because I don’t intimidate them with too-expensive clothes or a fancy-schmancy handbag. I’m short and a bit overweight and I laugh too loud. I look and sound like my clients, so they feel I’m more likely to be on their wavelength.
Interesting post.


Christina June 13, 2011 at 6:13 pm

Love the new banner. I suppose I equate perfection with pretense and pretentious people are no fun to be around. Anyway, who can maintain a spotless home all the time unless you have a housekeeper or nothing else to do.


sos June 13, 2011 at 7:48 pm

I would be equally uncomfortable in extra clean homes ( though I do have perfectionist tendencies and am a neat freak) and in very dirty homes. Cluttered spaces stress me out .

To extrapolate it to people, I feel I can’t connect with these always perfectly turned out people. They seem so artificial. Not a hair out of place, perfect make up every single time… makes me feel they are less human.


Amy June 13, 2011 at 8:02 pm

I feel okay in pretty much any environment except those in which there is actual filth on top of clutter (talking years of dust and dirt, etc.). I grew up in a house like that and it has sent me so far in the other direction that I actually stress out majorly if I don’t dust daily in my home. It’s something to work on, I know, but I really appreciate seeing order and cleanliness in a home.

That said, as the mother of 2, soon to be 3, kids under 4, I also understand when toys and belongings aren’t in place. But you can tell the difference between that sort of “mess” and a mess that has been left to fester for a while. I guess it just depends on the situation.


Amber @ June 14, 2011 at 3:30 am

Ditto to everything you said!
I grew up in a house that was always really, really messy and I was embarrased to bring friends over. I try to keep my house clean, but with 2 small kids, I figure a little messiness just shows that I spent my day enjoying them 🙂


imelda June 13, 2011 at 8:10 pm

Interesting that the authors of that book use that Subway example to prove that things can be “too perfect to touch.”

It seems like kind of a big assumption, doesn’t it? My first guess would’ve been that people are more likely to pick up chips from a rumpled display because they get the subliminal message that other people are doing it, too, so it’s OK to impulse buy.

Also, it drives me freaking nuts when grocery stores don’t have baskets near the entrance!


Elaine June 14, 2011 at 4:32 am

Wow, does this bring back memories. I had an aunt and uncle who were “doing well” and they had white carpeting in their house. We had bare wood and linoleum floors in our house (as did most of the people we knew). My mother *hated* going over there, mostly because she had 7 kids and she was terrified that we’d get something dirty or stained. My aunt & uncle were really nice people, though.

I like homes that are clean, but lived-in. When I do a super-cleaning, which is usually before I expect company, I always leave a few things out, to look lived-in. Also, I crumple a tissue and toss it on the bathroom wastebasket. If someone touches up their lipstick, they’ll feel comfortable about tossing the tissue they use.


Cate @ Liberal Simplicity June 14, 2011 at 2:15 pm

That’s smart, about the wastebasket…I’ve been in some homes where I’ve been really uncomfortable tossing anything in the bathroom trash can because it was not only empty, but CLEAN.


Anne Marie @ Married to the Empire June 14, 2011 at 9:37 am

I can handle being in perfect homes, but that’s mostly because I was raised in a perfect environment. My mother grew up in a dirty, cluttered home, so her form of rebellion was to go the extreme opposite direction. While my sister and I did have fun childhoods, I distinctly remember it being a very rare occasion to get to play with anything like Play-Doh because my mother just couldn’t handle the potential mess.

My sister is more of a happy-medium mother. Her house is always clean, but the kids are allowed to do messy projects and such. I expect I’ll be that mother, too. I’m not afraid of glitter! However, I’ve noticed my sister is always on high alert at my parents’ house because with 4 kids, there is that fear of someone messing something up. I’m dreading that part of motherhood.

While I can handle being in perfect homes, I can’t handle dirty homes. I know someone, for example, whose home I hate visiting because the bathroom is always disgusting. I can deal with pet hair everywhere or a cruddy carpet, but I cannot deal with a filthy bathroom that reeks of the cat box.


Kris June 19, 2011 at 6:53 pm


I am a “clean to the eye” girl. I have Epilepsy and my brain just cannot function if I am surrounded by clutter everywhere. I need to have a uncluttered space for my brain 😉 lol

That being said, clean to the eye doesn’t mean PERFECT. All of our furniture outside of sofa, etc, have storage. Bookcases have cabinets under the shelves. Our entertainment center has a drawer that holds all the wii(a gift from my mom) “stuff” and a bottom cabinet that holds all our vhs and dvd movies. Things are not piled up because there is ample storage space for everything.

Clean to the eye also doesn’t mean tidy if you open the linen closet 😉 Unless you are snooping around, your eyes shouldn’t see my linen closet or the inside of my medicine cabinet anyway, therefore your eyes won’t be subjected to the

I have been told my house is a comfortable place to be. I think that is because people know that a spill is just a spill and can always be cleaned up and we have really comfortable, slouchy furniture. One of the best things I have ever done is get rid of my drink coaster set. It made people feel bad if they set their glass down on the end table and then realized a coaster was there and must mean it wasn’t okay to not use one. They were just there “because”. I have no idea why. I never use a drink coaster so I don’t know why I even had them. Got rid of them.

I have a friend who has such a dirty, cluttered home that I hate to step foot in there. I perch on the sofa because you can’t really find a place to sit. I am always wondering if a mouse will crawl out of one of the mounds of clothes piled up in their home. I would rather pee my pants than step foot into her bathroom ever again. It just makes me feel uncomfortable and dirty. LOVE her. LOVE her family. Her house? Not so much.


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