Shop Talk

( Originally Published 1931 )

RUNNING homes is the greatest single business in America, towering above steel production, transportation, the motor industry, and the other familiar yard-sticks of power and size.

This business is almost exclusively in the hands of the housewives of the country, who are said to spend 85 per cent of their husbands' weekly earnings and to plan with the husbands for the expenditure of an additional ten per cent.

Time was when it was a matter of spinning, weaving, sewing, preserving, baking, dipping candles, making soap. Things were produced as the need for them arose, and the housewife made them herself or at least superintended their production. Furthermore, she recognized as necessities few things which she could not so produce.

Now all is changed. The single word, buy, has replaced many of the verbs of household industry. Even energy is bought in terms of washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and the like. The purse and the shopping list have become the symbols of the new day and generation. The shopper is paramount. On the one hand she controls the comfort and attractiveness of the home the standard of living as it is actually applied; in the other hand she holds the destiny of great industries. Let her demand silk, and cotton goes tumbling. Let her whisper "brown" and goods of other colors lie idle on the merchants' shelves. Yet, unorganized and largely unschooled in the methods of her business, she deals with a highly organized and scientifically operated system of production and distribution; for the century which has seen the remark-able change in function on the part of the housewife has been notable for its progress in making both mass production and marketing more professional and scientific. Great schools of technology and of business administration have been developed to make industrial life more efficient and abundant, while shopping, the greatest business of all, has remained unorganized and highly individualistic.

The average shopper has won such training as she has for her duties either by trial and error or by apprenticeship to her mother. Modern transportation and enterprise literally lay the products of the whole world at her feet for her to choose from; yet her conception of that productive world is as quaint as that of the medieval map-makers who drew faithfully the little they knew and then drew upon their imaginations for the rest. To be sure, a few schools and institutes of domestic science have been successfully developed, but the fact remains that the average shopper must still rely on her native instinct and wit in dealing with industry which is mobilizing more and more highly trained men and women to produce and market its products.

Further to handicap the shopper, she has lost all first-hand knowledge of the quality and workmanship of the goods which she needs. She is dependent largely upon what she reads in advertisements and upon what she is told in the stores, but she has not the background of information to know when the claims are false and when silence on this or that aspect of a product hides a real defect or weakness. As a result she is overcredulous in some instances and over-suspicious in others. In either case she pays.

Complete information about the various items on the ever lengthening shopping list would require a five-foot shelf of heavy volumes which would be out of date by the time they were printed. But more important than masses of facts are a point of view in shopping and an ability to analyze any product, old or new, in its relation to the basic principles of service which it must satisfy.

We may well eliminate from our discussion what may be termed the vulgarian who takes pride in paying fancy prices; who is not concerned that the two-ounce bottle of perfume for which she pays seventy-five dollars cost no more than two dollars to manufacture, so long as she can say that she pays seventy-five dollars for her perfume. Our interest is in the great body of Americans who believe in such phrases as "a run for your money" and "it's smart to be thrifty." Our concern is for those young couples who are eager to establish their own homes and for those older women who face the problem of maintaining their households on budgets rigidly fixed by modest salaries or other income. If indignation flares up from time to time, it is because these groups are now so helpless.


The first step in intelligent shopping is for the shopper to analyze her own particular needs. These needs may be stimulated by something she has seen in a store or read in an advertisement, but she must determine for herself exactly what they are before she even starts to think how to satisfy them. Many shopping mistakes are due to perhaps unconscious attempts to make individual needs conform to some-thing which is convincingly advertised, thus putting the cart before the horse. The shopper's first problem is to decide what she wants to buy; it is most certainly not to learn what a manufacturer or a store wants to sell.

For instance, she may read that a good grade of linoleum is cheaper in the long run than a poorer grade or a substitute product. That is perfectly true. But suppose her need is for a floor covering to be used in a bungalow which she has rented for one summer season. It would be bad economy to buy an expensive article which she intends to scrap before it has suffered hard use. Again, her daughter needs a new party dress, and of course wants it to be stylish. The fashionable fabric happens to be fragile and therefore short-lived. If the need is for a dress that will last for a full season, this particular fabric will not satisfy it at any price. Still another example is found in electric refrigeration, which may easily be an economy, as well as a convenience, for many households. But let us suppose that the shopper who needs refrigeration lives in the country where electricity is costly or where the current may be off for long periods after thunderstorms and ice storms. How can she best satisfy her need?

Remember that the advertiser and the merchant are talking to a wide audience, while you must respond as an individual in terms of your own special conditions.


Advertising has been developed into an important factor in public information. It is just as much news as the reports from Congress, the stock markets, the oil fields, the railroads, etc. It should be read with as much care and discrimination by the shopper as these other reports are read by politicians and business men.

Intelligent readers are quick to detect rant in political speeches and false claims in statements on business conditions. Similarly, the wise shopper will weigh the information contained in advertisements. Art work and adjectives will impress her less than nouns and verbs which tell a definite story. Then that story must sound plausible and it must relate definitely to some specific need before she will be interested in inspecting the article advertised.

Even so, she should judge the article on its merits as they appear to her on examination and not as they are told to her in the advertisements. Federal, and in some cases state, legislation prohibits palpably fraudulent misstatements; and certain of the better magazines and metropolitan newspapers exercise some degree of censorship over their advertising columns; but, even so, much that is specious slips by.

Take textiles, for instance. A fabric is advertised as "wool and cotton." Reputable stores should not use this phrase unless the wool content of the fabric is at least fifty per cent or unless they also specify the exact percentage of wool. What is the policy of the stores with which you deal? The value of the fabric to you depends in each case on the answer. Or take dandruff cures which are widely advertised. Dandruff is a symptom of one or another of several diseases of the scalp. Certainly, all of these diseases are not going to be cured by one and the same preparation. An advertisement about dandruff appeals to you. It gives you a number of facts which are new to you and you are impressed. But are these all the facts about dandruff? After reading the advertisement, are you really in a position to know whether this particular cure will help your scalp or harm it?

Apparently manufacturers have entered a mad race to outclaim each other in their advertising. It is not enough for them that a product can do one thing well; it is touted as useful for this, that, and the other thing until it becomes the world's greatest panacea on paper. Ponce de Leon spent years in seeking a single Fountain of Youth. The modern woman is led by advertising to believe that all she has to do is to go to the corner drug store and make her selection from any number of "fountains of youth," all nicely bottled.

Because this is a generation of great scientific achievements, we all are in a frame of mind which makes us ready to believe that almost anything is possible. Because this is a generation of increasing educational standards, we flatter ourselves that we can form intelligent opinions on subjects about which we really know nothing. Hair tonics and beauty preparations are classic illustrations of this point; to these are now being added such things as glasses that will let through certain curative rays of sunlight, tooth pastes with magic properties and foods with all the elusive vitamins of the alphabet. Certain advertisers trade on our credulity. So long as we believe in rain-making, rain-makers will flourish.

Advertising in its present status is special pleading. Instead of presenting a balanced statement, it emphasizes the good points and is discreetly silent about the weak or even harmful points.

Read advertisements as the basis for selecting those things about which you want to get first-hand information, NOT as the basis for making final decisions.

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