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Implementing the Consumer

Caroline F. Ware

February 1934

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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.

Consumers, Clay City
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 bewaring—combine and demand quality labeling.
Consumers, NY

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.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003