Shopping - Beauty And The Best

( Originally Published 1931 )

Mr. Robert W. De Forest, president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has said that "to walk with beauty we need not necessarily limit ourselves to trooping through the galleries of our formal collections of art." * He elaborates this statement by showing how the great retail establishments by their selection and display of goods are profoundly stimulating the trend toward better design in articles of everyday use.

These are the articles which form the background for our daily lives. They are the things we see and handle. They are the purchases made by the shopper from the assortments in the stores.

Time was when there was at least an unconscious assumption that ugliness was an index of utility, that the great god Hygiene must be worshiped only in a deadening white. Now there is promise of a refreshing change. Color has come into the kitchen and into the bathroom as well, and the restfulness of simple lines and masses has replaced fussiness in the furniture of the various other rooms. So long as it is useful and necessary to our physical comfort, nothing is too small or insignificant to be overlooked in making the home brighter and more livable.

In hastening the desirable change the shopper can play an important part by her discrimination in making purchases, for by her selections she can encourage those manufacturers and stores which are trying to improve the appearance as well as the usefulness of their goods, whether these goods be egg-beaters, tooth-brushes, dining-room tables, or electric toasters. And as this change progresses to the various things on the shopping list the shopper must more and more consider tastefulness in design and color as an important factor in value. At the same time the shopper should always bear in mind that the fundamental genius of contemporary design is utility or practicality. If a dresser does not serve its purpose of storing and making easily available the various articles in our wide variety of personal linen, it is bad design no matter how lovely the lines and color of the dresser may be. With electricity we can expect conveniences in lighting fixtures which are free from the limitations imposed by the hot, exposed flames of candles and gas. Through the development of plywood construction and of fabricated materials we are no longer dependent on the massive construction of our forefathers, which is out of keeping with the space restrictions of the modern home. The first definition of design is purpose; and if purpose is not fulfilled, the design is bad, whether the object is a reproduction of an antique or is modernistic in treatment. p>MAN TO MAN

Except in the relatively insignificant number of stores where the customer makes her own selections from the shelves and thus waits on herself, retail merchandising is a highly personal relation between clerk and shopper. The larger stores spend great sums in sifting and training their sales personnel so that the stores' contacts with the public will be as satisfactory as is humanly possible.

But this is only half the story: There is also "the party of the second part" in any such transaction, and that "party" is the shopper. It is just as much to her interest to make the right impression on the clerk as it is to the merchant's interest to have his clerk make the right impression on the shopper. If the shopper considers and treats the clerk as a mechanical part of a vending machine, she will get automatic service and no more. If, on the other hand, the shopper considers the clerk as a factor in any important purchase, she will think about the selection of the clerk who is going to assist her before she starts to think about the selection of her purchase. She will outline to the clerk what her need is and how in general she would like to satisfy it. Then clerk and shopper can cooperate in finding the specific thing which will best satisfy that need. In no small number of cases it will be some-thing quite different from what the shopper had expected to buy.

Shoppers too frequently ask for and buy a specific thing only to discover later that it is not meeting their expectations. They take the purchase back to the store with a complaint. Time and again the complaint is dropped when the merchant exclaims: "Oh, if you had only told us that you expected to use it under those conditions, we would have advised you to buy something better adapted to your needs."

Take the instance of the young man who asked the clerk to show him a good overcoat. Several fabrics and styles, each one good for its intended use, were shown him and he chose a chinchilla. A month later he came back to the store with the complaint that the left sleeve was badly worn. A brief discussion developed the fact that he was a general practitioner and drove his own car when making calls on his patients. It was a closed car and he had the habit of resting his arm on the window sill, thus subjecting his coat sleeve to constant friction. The clerk who had served him had no way of knowing this fact without being told, and the doctor had no reason for knowing the relative wearing qualities of various cloths. Thus the complete information essential to making a satisfactory selection was not assembled until too late.

There are some persons who argue that frankly stating one's case gives the clerk the idea that he is dealing with an easy mark and can unload some inferior article on the customer. This may of course prove true in some few instances; but, particularly in the larger and more responsible stores, the clerks are of a type who are stimulated by a frank statement of needs and an appeal for suggestions as to how best to meet them. It is only human nature for a clerk to be less interested where he is treated as a mere vending machine and actively resentful when he detects a customer in a bluff. Experienced clerks take particular delight in spotting the self-sufficient customer whose fund of shopping lore is derived from reading those advertisements which tell a most interesting story but not the whole story.

The sales clerk is the shopper's only direct contact with the vast and altogether mysterious world of merchandise. Treated as a friend, he may prove an invaluable guide; ignored or antagonized, he may become an expensive item in shopping.


Shopping is the modern woman's freedom from the exhausting labors of running the homes of an earlier day. But freedom is always bought at a price. Here the price is loss of first-hand information as to the materials and workmanship of products used in the home. Further, the determination of necessities and luxuries is no longer based on physical ability but on capacity to pay, and the initiative in creating and determining needs has passed largely to the producers and distributors, who exert it through advertising.

Here the price must be paid in terms of judgment and character; for cash and credit tempt, where once personal labor restrained, the growth of needs.

To do her job efficiently the modern shopper must certainly have more information than she now has about the things she buys; but the pursuit of information is a stern chase in these days of tremendous scientific progress. While she is learning about ice boxes, mechanical refrigeration jumps from the experimental laboratories into widespread practical application. While she is considering the relative merits of various talking machines, radio becomes as popular a house-hold fixture as the sewing machine was a generation ago. And so goes this great game of leapfrog in our mechanical age.

She can never hope to catch up in this chase after the latest information. But she can learn wisdom; she can develop an attitude of mind which will sift and interpret information and will always retain its buoyancy against the dead weight of details, and she can pit her common sense against credulity even in this age of mechanistic miracles.

It is hoped that the information given in the following chapters will be of help if applied in the spirit of the following points:

1. Look to your household and not to the advertisements to determine your needs.

2. A real need is clear-cut and can be visualized. If it is a "round" need, no square peg, however attractive in itself, will ever fill it.

3. Advertisements are often as significant for what they omit as for what they say. They are special pleadings, not complete descriptions.

4. Merchants tell you about their bargains; it's up to you to determine whether they are yours.

5. Price is the factor we think of most often and most unintelligently. Price is always secondary to need. High prices are by no means assurance of quality. Low prices are often associated with most expensive "bargains."

6. Anticipating a need to take advantage of a "bar-gain" is frequently pure speculation.

7. "Sales" are no more honest than the merchants who conduct them. Price reductions may be fictitious and inferior goods may be mixed with those described in the advertising.

8. Federal and state courts may order sales in bankruptcies, closing of estates, etc. ; but the courts in no way take responsibility for the merchandising honesty in such sales.

9. Between producer and consumer are a wide variety of stores selling much the same things in many different ways. Delivery, credit, the privilege of returning goods, rest rooms, personal shopping services are among the conveniences found in stores. The services are obviously costly to operate and the customer pays for them (whether or not she uses them herself) in the necessarily higher "mark-up" or price range in such stores.

10. However, the shopper cannot classify stores as expensive or cheap solely on the basis of the conveniences offered to her. Efficiency of management is the controlling factor in price and it is possible for a well-run store offering delivery and other conveniences to sell for less than a badly managed "cash and carry."

11. Cash is the basis of all buying and selling and is the most economical policy in shopping. However, paying cash in a store which extends credit to any of its customers does not command the full saving incident to a strictly cash policy.

12. $25 plus 10 times $10 is never less than $125 even in the case of "easy payments."

13. Good taste in the color and design of even the most commonplace articles of household use is becoming an important factor in determining values, but utility or fulfillment of purpose remains the backbone of good design.

14. The sales clerk is your only direct contact with the world of merchandise. Make the most of that contact.

Home | More Articles | Email: