You've probably seen the commercial: A couple, looking exhausted, stand in their relatively empty garage, pleased they can fit a car inside again.

Then they head to their kitchen, to debate the merits of canned soup.

The fantasy: Folks argue over soup.

The reality: There's a world full of messy garages.

People would "really like to fit their cars in the garage," said Mike Franks, director of strategic planning for O'Sullivan Furniture in Lamar, Mo., which makes Tuff Duty garage-storage equipment for Coleman. "But not that many can do it, because of all the clutter."

The garage is used "as a drop-off point on the way to somewhere else in the house, because it is the closest open space," said Leslie Robison, who tackles other people's clutter through Simple Systems Organizing, a consulting company in Green Lane, Pa.

"Then the garages end up stuffed, and they can't figure out why," Robison said.

Getting rid of a percentage of what's in the garage, even if it means filling a dumpster, is a crucial first step to getting it organized, Robison said. "It's hard to do."

Clutter has plagued garages pretty much as long as there have been garages. Because only the rich could afford the first automobiles, horses moved over in the stable or carriage house so cars could move in.

The word "garage," which the dictionary says entered the language around 1902, comes from the French verb "garer," which means "to dock." When the middle class started getting behind the wheel, narrow garages were built in the alleys behind their rowhouses, so cars could be "docked" there.

At first, there was no attempt to blend garage and house. But the post-World War II building boom changed that. A mass-produced house in Levittown, N.Y., in 1947 cost $7,000. It came with a garage attached, because houses were built on smaller lots to keep down costs.

By 1990, the two-car garage was standard in 55 percent of U.S. homes, census figures show. By 1995, 76 percent of new homes had at least a two-car garage. By last year, it was up to 83 percent, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

These days, garage organization products are among the fastest-growing segments of the home organization market. Franks said his company, O'Sullivan, spent a couple of years looking at garages after a survey showed that organizing them was a high priority among homeowners.

"It's the most underserved market at the retail level," he said. "What we found was that the same generic storage systems used in other areas of the house, other than tool systems, were being used in the garage."

More and more manufacturers have gotten into the garage game, sharing their organizing wonders with the world through stores such as Home Depot, Lowe's and Sears. Some companies, such as ClosetMaid (www.closetmaid.com), offer advice and storage plans on their Web sites.

Stanley Works' ZAG division has come up with a garage workshop storage system consisting of modular cabinets and shelves made of resin and galvanized metal, with a powder-coat paint to make them rust- and stain-resistant.

The shelves can be put into and between cabinets and can hold up to 100 pounds. The cabinets' outer surfaces are lined with pegboards for additional hooks for tool storage. There are also plenty of drawers.

Eric Montague, a Stanley spokesman, said the product "is rolling out in greater numbers every day." The units range in cost from $80 to $100, the pegboard that goes inside the cabinet doors is about $15, a "smart shelf" with power tool slots costs $10, and heavy-duty wheels to make the system mobile run about $15.

Last year, the company test-marketed a new line of customized hooks, brackets and metal racks designed to hold equipment for 10 or 12 specific activities, such as fishing, biking or golf.

"The golf product ($20 to $35 retail), which is a metal bracket nailed into a stud, holds two golf bags, balls and related equipment," Montague said. "Two or three of them can simplify your life, because you have everything you need in one place."

One technique for organizing is "to view the area as a series of systems," said Mike Young, Sears Craftsman tool-storage buyer. "Most projects are tackled in steps. If the garage is designed the same way, the homeowner moves from one station to the next, while maximizing time and productivity."

For example, if a mechanic sized up an 18-foot wall, he might use that area most effectively to store a chest and a rollaway unit loaded with hand and portable power tools; a compressor with easy access to air tools for installing, sanding, spraying or disassembling parts; a workbench for tabletop activity and construction projects; and a vertical cabinet to store cleaners, extension cords, trouble lights, and other essentials.

Sears is test-marketing Craftsman garage storage systems in 20 cities, including Chicago and Minneapolis, Young said.

Walls and ceilings are being underused in garages, organization expert Leslie Robison added.

"A lot of the clutter -- bicycles, lumber and garden tools -- can be hung on wall hooks or on the ceiling," she said. "Like things should be placed together, such as tools, which tend to be scattered all over the place."

In its research, O'Sullivan discovered that the typical garage owner was willing to spend less than $1,000 for a garage organization system, Franks said.

Whirlpool must have talked to another set of focus groups, because the cost of its complete Gladiator GarageWorks system, which includes a refrigerator, flirts with $10,000.

The Gladiator components include mobile chest cabinets for your tools; a large workbench with optional full-length power strip; lockers and tall cabinets; and a trash compactor. Its GearWall panels provide the necessary storage space for your lawn and garden tools, ladders, wheelbarrow, lawn spreader, and other bulky items. Baskets, hooks and shelves attach to the panels.

O'Sullivan's research gave it a fairly good idea of how garages are used, Franks said, and the findings were enlightening.

"Uses are diverse, to say the least. Garages are both project centers and storage centers, formerly a male domain centering on the automobile but now used equally by men and women, since women have begun to dominate outdoor-related tasks such as gardening."

The garage is much more useful for storage than the basement, he said, "because it is typically on the same level as the rest of the house."

But garages come with their own set of problems because they aren't climate-controlled.

With the components O'Sullivan made for Coleman, "we chose finishes that were 100 percent plastic resin that would survive in high humidity," Franks said. "Since garage floors have condensation problems, the pieces sit on legs so that they don't come into contact with the floors."

Since garage floors also tilt to allow water to drain out, the components are self-leveling.

The system includes two- and three-drawer base cabinets, which, when put together, can hold a workbench top; a pegboard hutch with power access and task lighting; wall cabinets; and floor storage cabinets.

Once you have de-cluttered your garage, you should make it more inviting, Robison said. "You need good lighting, and a little color can really make it a fun place. Put in a CD player, as well.

"The garage has less of a chance of getting cluttered," she said, "if you make it a pleasant, enjoyable space."

Whirlpool's complete Gladiator GarageWorks system, which includes a refrigerator, is about $10,000.