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Consumer Ignorance

( Originally Published 1939 )



Most consumers are not rational buyers. By the trial-and-error process of shopping, usually involving repeated visits to the store, the woman shopper may find something that will do. But she does not realize that she has wasted too much of her own time and nervous energy and that the services of the store in taking back unsatisfactory goods and making extra deliveries, the time of the sales person, complaints, adjustments and damage to merchandise all increase overhead costs which she and other buyers have to pay. In other words plain consumer ignorance increases distribution costs. For this consumers must share responsibility. But the manufacturer and the distributor are also responsible insofar as they help to maintain the consumer's ignorance and exploit his indifference.

Even the careful buyer may find it impossible to learn anything at the time of sale about the actual use value of textiles. The composition of cloth can no longer be determined by the standards of sight and touch which have guided most women in buying dress goods from time immemorial. Certain synthetic fabrics now imitate wool so perfectly that even experts can hardly tell them apart; but the way they wear may be quite different. Many of these imitations are labeled inaccurately or deceptively-some not at all-and sales people frequently know no more about them than the customer.

In recent years, however, certain manufacturers have been pushing a campaign for "truth in textiles." They say that public opinion is insisting that producers and distributors tell the public exactly what they are buying. Insofar as this campaign succeeds the costs of distribution and prices can be reduced.

Differences in price often fail to reflect real differences in quality -either in the products themselves or in the services required to sell them. Although a branded article with the label of a well-known manufacturer or distributor is usually of uniform quality the consumer has no assurance that the quality is high or low. He can judge that only after he has bought and used the article.

A dramatic example of the discrepancy between price and quality has been cited by Dr. Slichter. Twenty-four cans of corn were bought to be used as a test in a grading school. They were graded by experts according to United States Government standards. One can, judged U.S. grade A, or "fancy," cost 17 cents; fourteen cans graded U.S. grade B, or "extra standard," averaged 14.85 cents each; and nine, graded U.S. grade C, or "standard," averaged 16.92 cents. The price of the poorest corn was higher on the aver-age than that of the medium and almost as high as the one can of "fancy" corn.

Slichter also cites strength tests of five Turkish towels, which showed that a 25-cent towel was a better buy than one priced at 50 cents and a $1.00 towel far superior to a $1.50 one. In a test of five other towels the highest-priced towel was fourth in quality. Tests of the warp and filling strength of six suits of men's cotton under-wear gave similar results-suits priced at $1.50 were of stronger weave than the $2.25 and $3.00 suits.

Informing the Consumer

The importance of making readily available to consumers the essential facts about merchandise is a lively issue today. But opinions differ about the best ways of doing it.

The Bureau of Agricultural Economics of the Department of Agriculture favors the grading and labeling of goods according to rigid government requirements. Grades based upon government standards arrived at by test have been officially established for all of the principal raw agricultural products which can be measured by physical test, such as tobacco, cotton, and grain. Some fifty-five kinds of fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts are also graded according to size, color, and maturity. The Bureau bases its standards on actual study of the practices of growers, packers, and shippers of agricultural crops, fruits and vegetables. The use of the government grading service is voluntary and a fee is paid for it. Many states now compel the sale of certain products on the basis of grades, although not necessarily those of the Department of Agri-culture.

Some advocates of the Department of Agriculture grading system believe that it could be extended to all or most consumer goods. A bill to require government grade labeling of consumer goods was recently presented in Congress but failed of passage. Opponents of grading contend that a rigid system for all products would be impracticable and unsatisfactory. They say that the education of the buying public to use the, labels would be no small task; and that it would be impossible to devise standards flexible enough to cover the infinite variety of qualities which make for consumer satisfaction.

Descriptive Labeling

Packers have opposed the Department of Agriculture grading system for canned goods on the ground that it is not sufficiently clear and that it might encourage the advertiser to try to convince purchasers that his particular Grade A or B was superior to an-other packer's Grade A or B. They advocate voluntary descriptive labeling, contending that the label should be "the window of the can," permitting the consumer to find out exactly what is inside.

In the effort to open the window still further, some labels picture the exact size of the fruit or vegetable in the can-for example, the label of one brand of ripe olives which carries a full-size picture of the fruit, states: "This can contains about 46 olives this size. Net weight, 9 oz. or 255 grams. Packed and sterilized under supervision and according to regulations of State Department of Health."

The advantage to the consumer of this sort of label over lyrical names and highly-colored pictures is obvious. Its weakness lies in the fact that its use would now be voluntary, as there is no legal compulsion on the producer to label his goods clearly, completely and accurately.

The new Food, Drugs and Cosmetics Act, signed by the President on June 25, 1938, outlaws harmful and adulterated products and requires packaged foods to be labeled to show weight and volume. If canned fruits and vegetables are below certain legal minimum standards (which have not yet been established for most products) the label must so state. Beyond this the law merely requires that the label must not mislead or deceive the purchaser.

Size Labeling

The need for accurate size labeling of wearing apparel is apparent to every woman who buys ready-made garments, and should be to every retail merchant who complains about the returned goods problem. A shopper asks, for example, for a child's size nine dress in a particular style. Out of nines at the moment, the saleswoman shows an eight, saying that it will probably fit because "this style runs large." The customer may find when she gets home that it does not.

The standardization of sizes of children's garments is the object of an extended research project now being carried on by the Bureau of Home Economics of the Department of Agriculture with the cooperation of the American Standards Association and several associations of manufacturers of patterns and of children's clothing. It is planned to measure approximately 100,000 children of pre-school and school ages, from high, medium, and low income groups and from different racial groups. A report and statistical analysis of the data will probably be published during the present year.

This valuable work will be partly nullified, however, so long as garments are made of fabrics which shrink or stretch in laundering or cleaning. Most shoppers ask about shrinkage, and usually receive a stock answer to the effect that "there have been no complaints," or that the sales person does not think it will shrink. But the size nine becomes size eight in the wash and another dress must be bought-size ten this time, "to allow for shrinking." This prolific source of waste and inconvenience seems wholly without excuse in view of the methods now available for pre-shrinking fabrics. Many consumers now look for the "pre-shrunk" label.

Other Consumer Aids

The Agricultural Adjustment Administration has inaugurated a Consumers' Counsel Division which publishes the Consumers' Guide, a bi-weekly bulletin. The nature of this publication is evident from a typical table of contents: "Facts for Blanket Buyers"; "Check your Vitamin C"; "Should Consumers Unite?"; "Cooperation" ; "Milk Producers and the Cooperative Way." The Department of Labor has a "Standards Section" of a "Consumers' Project," successor to the Consumers' Advisory Board of the NRA and heir to the fund of statistical data on consumers' standards collected by that organization. The Standards Section has continued to collect and assemble government standards and specifications on consumer goods.

A few private groups have organized to apply scientific tests to consumer goods and to make known the results to their members. These groups have in most cases small capital and limited laboratory facilities, but their activities have shown what can be done. Consumer's Research, Inc., and Consumers Union of U. S. Inc., undertake to make their own tests of products which they name specifically in their reports to subscribers, with detailed comparisons of ingredients, performance, quality and so forth, of the different brands of a given product. Another organization is Cooperative Distributors, Inc., which publishes information on commodities, and functions as a consumers' cooperative in the sale of standardized articles.

Some progressive department stores have recognized the advantages of promoting consumer interest in quality, and have set up their own bureaus of standards. The Consumer-Retailer Relations Council, sponsored by a few of the important retail interests, has made some headway toward defining and establishing standards for various kinds of consumer goods. Women's clubs and women's magazines are also increasingly active in the field of consumer education. Much remains to be done, however, both on the part of distributors and organized groups of consumers before the retail customer can approach his task with sufficient information to be able to discharge it wisely. Ignorance on the part of consumers and their consequent failure to get the most for their money is some-times due to sheer stupidity, but more often to lack of information rather than lack of intelligence.

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