Caroline F. Ware
CLEARLY, effective implementing of the consumer
by developing accurate quality labeling involves his education
to know and recognize the qualities he wants. High pressure salesmanship
and exaggerated advertising claims have so accustomed the consumer
to being told that everything is of the best that he has lost
the habit as well as the means of trying to discriminate. In a
recent NRA code hearing in Washington, the representative of an
industry readily agreed that the purchaser should not be fooled
into buying the quickly rotting fabrics offered by many manufacturers.
But when the consumer representative suggested quality labeling
as the obvious solution, he drew back indignantly.
"Why, that is preposterous! You cannot expect
any producer to say that his stuff is not the best."
The fault lies not wholly with the manufacturer,
but in part with the consumer who often demands the "best" no
matter what the price. So long as he had rather be told that he
is getting the best and then be fooled, producers will continue
to resist any labeling which tells the real quality.
The factor of which the consumer is most keenly
aware is price. He wants to know how much he should pay and whether
he is being gouged. But he cannot receive an adequate answer to
his queries until the missing information about quality is made
available. No one can tell whether a price is reasonable if the
quality to which the price applies is not known. No one can tell
whether prices are moving up or down if he does not know whether
the quality remains constant. It has not taken the repeal of the
Eighteenth Amendment to remind the consumer that the price of
whiskey means nothing without knowledge of how much it has been
cut. Cheap goods in and of themselves are neither economically
sound nor unsound. Similarly, expensive goods derive their economic
justification from quality in relation to price, not from price
alone. Without the means of knowing quality, the consumer's knowledge
of price must be a very rough tool.
It is particularly rough when producers deliberately
obscure the quality to which price applies in order to confuse
the consumer and to prevent his mak ing comparisons. An instructive
item which appeared in the Dry Goods Daily News Record on November
3, 1933, related that, "Local domestics buyers agree that on certain
types of branded goods, particularly on sheets, and, in some instances,
towels, they are beginning to meet with a good deal of price resistance.
The difficultY on such branded lines, of course, is that customers
are able to compare the prices easily." To get around this situation
it was suggested that "it would be a good idea to overcome this
resistance by'switching'lines, so that customers will not be able
to make a direct comparison.... I believe," suggested one retailer,
"that the manufacturer would do well to change the border, or
refinish the surface, or doll up the towel in some way, so that
the increase will not be so obvious."
In the absence of quality labeling, the consumer
has come to depend upon price as virtually his only guide to quality.
Wherever scientific tests have been made to determine the reliability
of price as an indicator of quality, it has appeared that the
consumer who relies upon price puts his faith in a broken reed.
In tests of sheeting, for instance, the highest priced article
has proved to be of poorer quality than what, according to price,
was indicated as being of fourth or fifth grade. In short, information
as to quality is the first and indispensable step in any effort
to implement the consumer.
The problem of equipping the consumer to know
the quality of the thing he buys is thus a fourfold one: to make
general labeling on the basis of the satisfactory grades which
have already been worked out; to develop grades for the many staple
products which are suitable for grading; to secure the widespread
use of such grades; finally, to make the consumer so aware of
what he pays for his gullibility that he will become as smart
a consumer as was his grandfather.
It is for the consumer
the whole machine is run. Yet he himself has no accurate
yardstick of quality whether he buys in the little general
store at Clay City (above) or the greatest general store
in New York City (below). Buyers must do their own bewaringcombine
and demand quality labeling.
Once quality standards have been developed
for industrial as well as agricultural products, the problem of
securing their general use by industry remains. In many industries,
the best element is determined to have quality labeling adopted
as a means of eliminating the cutthroat competition of misleading
quality and of gaining the cooperation of the consumer. A number
of industries have included quality standards in their proposed
codes including such varied industries as retail lumber, underwear
(standards for measurement only), jewelry and window-shades. But
the principal demands have come from consumer representatives.
Efforts to include clauses calling for quality
labeling in both NRA and AAA codes and marketing agreements have
been consistently made by consumer representatives in both of
the emergency administrations. The availability of standards already
developed by the Department of Agriculture and the fact that agricultural
marketing agreements have frequently contained provisions for
price-fixing which could be put into effect only for graded products,
have made the inclusion of standards clauses in AAA marketing
agreements fairly general. The strength of these clauses has varied
and in some cases compulsory labeling has been made contingent
upon its inclusion in the general canning code, not yet adopted.
Efforts of consumer representatives to secure
labeling requirements in NRA codes have been much less successful
than in agricultural marketing agreements. In the first place,
there are fewer available standards, and in the second place their
inclusion has been more strongly opposed. In some cases the industry
has flatly refused the mere suggestion of quality labeling.