Open Your Purse and Shut Your Eyes

I

GIDEON WADE had a notion of trust that seems to me both shrewd and straight. Gideon used to peddle fruit and vegetables to the villagers near his farm, and he also supplied most of the cordwood for the village stoves. That he had a rather peculiar method of doing business must be admitted; the descendants of his neighbors still tell about it as a bit of American humor. They say that when Mrs. Jones, for instance, wanted a cord of wood, Gideon would appear promptly with a wagonload of good seasoned wellcut wood and pile it neatly in cord formation within Mrs. Jones’s woodshed. That finished, he would step to her kitchen door and call, ‘Mis’ Jones, I’ve corded ye up some wood. If ye’d just kindly step out here now and see if it suits . . .‘

And Mis’ Jones would step out, with Gideon watching her sharply. If she measured his pile roughly by eye and hand length, he was pleased. If she called him to terms for being short a stick or two, or over the cord by a little, he would cheerfully correct the amount and Mis’ Jones had gained his respect and unfailing service. If, on the other hand, she casually looked at his woodpile and said carelessly that she guessed it was all right, Gideon would turn without a word and grimly begin to load his wood back on to his old wagon bed again. Mis’ Jones might argue as long as she had breath, but she did n’t get Gideon’s wood. And it would be a long time, perhaps years, before he was willing to give her a second trial as a customer. When his neighbors chided Gideon for a business policy bound to lose him money, he had one never-varying reply; he might, he’d say, lose some money that way, but certain sure he licked the old devil a-sitting on his shoulder. As a matter of fact, Gideon died a prosperous man.

I should not like to be misunderstood as belittling in any way the quality of real trust between human beings; it is assuredly our most precious medium of exchange. But I do mean to suggest that trust not founded upon information and complete understanding is simply not trust at all. It is, instead, a form of lazy inadequacy, making the seller appear dishonest and the buyer a fool.

We have admittedly become a nation of blindly trusting people. It is our tendency to trust anyone and everyone with something to sell, politically, economically, or over a counter. This tendency appears in an exaggerated form when we buy our consumer goods — and it is one of the most subtly dangerous and subversive factors in our national life.

Consider briefly, from the consumer’s angle, the trust which exists between retailer and customer. Its simple origin, of course, must lie at that far point when members of a community found that some of their individuals were better at the job of making pottery, furniture, or clothing than were the others. They knew this because they had seen it done. They had seen it. This is a point of enormous importance in understanding this story. And, too, it should be remembered that there was neither secret nor mystery about what went into the product in raw materials, labor, or cost, since every family originally made for itself whatever it needed, and a common knowledge of such homely manufacture was general. The only difference between one man’s product and his neighbor’s was a matter of skill, ingenuity, or imagination. No consumer need take this difference on trust, since it was easy to watch the work in progress. No farther back than in our own colonial history you will see this gradual transferal of manufacture to those who had the most skill, the greatest aptitude for it.

Imagine if you will the two groups, makers and users, sitting around a conference table, with the users speaking plainly their requirements and the makers demonstrating their compliance. While there were no written agreements, no literal specifications, still such specifications were persistently taken for granted by the consumer group, and for a remarkably long time by the producers. This is the root of the trust which laymen have until recently felt for the professional manufacturer and retailer. Moreover, because the two functions were closely related for so long, we find consumers for generations stubbornly believing that the responsibilities were interchangeable, believing subconsciously that the producer and the seller were one in their service.

Thus experience built up a firm confidence between makers and users, a confidence which lasted for years, as this country has good reason to know. But lately a strange fervor amounting almost to a crusading hysteria has infected many consumer gatherings, causing manufacturers and retailers a good deal of puzzled anxiety. What new form of selling must be evolved to quiet this murmuring consumer unrest, and to prevent the bitterness of rebellion from destroying our traditional trust?

Two points indicate the nature of the solution. One is the fact that consumers no longer see their merchandise made, and must arbitrarily take it on trust of some sort. The other is the frequently unrecognized fact that there is no longer any such thing as a ‘best’ in any generic field of production — a ‘ best ’ at each price level, perhaps, but no dead-centre, static, definable ‘best’ for all.

If this seems unbelievable, consider what is really meant by the term ‘grades ’ or ‘qualities.’ Everything that is made, from kitchen stoves to baby clothes, is the result of an assembly of many factors in varying proportions. A producer takes these factors — raw materials, labor, style, beauty, wearability, cost — and combines them according to his own particular formula, so much cost in ratio to so much beauty, style, strength, and so on, and produces, let us say, a chair at a certain price to the consumer. Then he or another manufacturer takes the same factors but in different proportions and also turns out a chair, perhaps at a quite different cost. Now each of these chairs has presumably been designed to offer satisfaction to some consumer. But which consumer will be most satisfied with which chair is a question that by the immutable laws of human psychology only the ultimate consumer is qualified to decide.

No retailer can select for any consumer the ‘ best ’ for him, since a purchase only becomes the ‘best’ when it fits squarely the individual consumer’s purposes. The buyer who needs a good sturdy commonplace safety pin will be better satisfied with his own choice of a good sturdy safety pin than with the handsomest platinum clip which may be offered as the ‘best,’ or a straight pin which in all its insecurity is offered as the ‘cheapest.’ There may be an almost infinite variety of grades, each of them satisfactory under certain conditions, but a purchase which fails to fit adequately the individual’s purposes and expectations is no better than a pair of shoes two sizes too small.

The consumer of to-day is presented with an amazing number, not only of new products, but of different grades of those products. How, then, do people buy? What are their guides, their bases for decision? The plain fact is that with the exception of a few major purchases of a lifetime — a home, a car, a sable coat, or a diamond tiara (if any) — the average consumer buys according to three things: sight, touch, and price, against a background of an inherited and unthinking trust of the producer and seller. This trust may take the form of ‘going to a good store,’ or buying ‘a brand you know,’ but it is indeed a far deeper, more essential matter than that. It is the projection of a remarkably matter-of-fact trust which has made consumers assume it safe to buy what pleased their eyes, their touch, and their pocketbook, made them assume for long, long years that beneath each purchase — even at a bargain sale — was an implied guaranteed minimum of worth. The exploitation of this prime factor in our commercial life goes far to explain that strange abstract often called the American ‘sucker.’ But consumers are not ‘suckers,’ contrary to Mr. Barnum and all his latter-day disciples; they are victims, sadly enough, of a great trust that has lost its reason for being.

II

There are many people, I am well aware, who resent being told they do not know what they buy — and many who do not believe it. And that brings up the question of the reliability of those three guides, sight, touch, and price. It is fair to ask if these are not, after all, decently reliable, useful, and indicative of value. The answer depends upon what a buyer expects or requires of his purchases. For sight and touch can only inform a consumer as to the outward qualities of a product — style, beauty, fit, comfort, and so on. Price can tell one literally nothing except that the purchase can or cannot be afforded — and then only if first cost be the final consideration! According to every important technician in the country, when it comes to the unseen qualities of a product, the things which ultimately make for performance, the least reliable guides in the world are these familiar three — sight, touch, and price. Just where does that leave the layman buyer who is not blessed with infinite time, means, and patience to sample by the trial-and-error method all the products with which he is daily confronted? It leaves him dependent on one buying guide alone — his blind and inherited trust of the seller.

Let me try to illustrate this insecurity of choice in a random selection of merchandise.

With the approach of winter weather, millions of consumers will again be concerned with the purchase of coats, suits, dresses, blankets, whose chief purpose is to keep the human body warm. Certainly style, beauty, and price will enter into the buying, but warmth is the urgent necessity. And how does one judge warmth? By sight? Many fabrics which look warm have virtually no warmth at all. For instance, rayon fibre may be spun and woven to look exactly like wool, and it is common knowledge in the trade that an increasingly vast yardage of fabrics for men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing often sold as ‘all wool’ actually contains from 40 per cent to 80 per cent rayon. Yet how much has rayon of wool’s generic warmth properties? By touch, then? But many soft, heavy, and woolly fabrics have little real warmth. By price? But a recent laboratory test of coat linings, for instance, showed that certain linings which had the greatest warmth were also the cheapest, although they were also the heaviest. On the other hand, camel hair in its finest, handsomest, and costliest grade is also the warmest and lightest. Its wearability, however, is below the inferior qualities, which, while heavy, are not warm.

Observe these many factors; remembering what is meant by a ‘grade,’consider whether any consumer actually does know how warm is warmth, and how much of it he receives for his investment in relation to other factors. Yet an efficient testing laboratory can measure every one of these factors in definite understandable terms. Warmth — technically called thermal resistance — can be reduced to a figure, as can the factors of weight and wearability, so that they may be studied in their comparative values by any consumer. But can you remember ever seeing this information given at the point of sale?

Next consider that homely necessity, bath towels. Anyone with half an eye can determine the style, beauty, and color of a towel; the hand may sense its softness, a yardstick will find its size, the label will tell its price. But what about the unseen factors? You buy towels for their faculty of soaking up water freely and rapidly — in other words, absorbency. You want a towel that will wear a reasonable length of time, a color which will stay its best. But here are two towels with their recorded laboratory tests for the hidden factors. One of these towels is widely advertised as the ‘best buy’; one costs less than the other; one is two inches longer than the other. But neither has been so labeled and described in terms of those hidden qualities that a consumer may decide for herself which is really the best buy for her.

Here is the record of a test applied to washable wallpapers by a fine laboratory. Two samples were tested, each made by a ‘good’ company, each called ‘washable.’ Under the wet abrasion tests of the laboratory, however, one sample was found to have a breaking point of an average 59, the other of 5000+ No technical knowledge and no involved explanation are needed to convince a layman that one of these wallpapers is much less deserving of the term ‘washable’ than the other. Certainly the less washable paper may have compensating qualities in greater style, beauty, or lower price, but the unseen factor, its washability, is featured by manufacturer and retailer. Does the consumer, then, truly know what he is buying, and does he rely safely on his inherited trust of the seller?

Finally, let me tell you as briefly as possible the story of shrinkage, which like that other story, fibre identification, touches all human life, whatever the age, sex, or income. Perhaps it sounds a very humdrum, inconsequential affair, but in fact it costs this country every year many millions of dollars in economic loss, and no one pays that bill but the plain consumer. To begin with, all woven fabrics are born to shrink. Every process of their creation holds them under constant and extreme tension, stretching their fibres nearly to the limit of their capacity. This tension first really relaxes when the fabric meets moisture by immersion, steam, or atmosphere. Part of the finishing process of some fabrics, notably cotton and linen types, performs some of this relaxing function, shrinking the fibres back toward their original length. But the fibres do not necessarily go all the way back to that normal condition at the first meeting with moisture. They may shrink more at the second, third, or fourth immersion.

Now in the trade certain terms are used to indicate that these fibres have received some degree of relaxation — shrinkage, in short. Consumers are familiar with these terms; scarcely a woman but will recognize such words as ‘pre-shrunk,’ ‘shrunk,’ ‘shrinkproof,’ ‘full-shrunk,’ and ‘washable.’ But what, exactly, do they mean to the average consumer?

A few weeks ago I put that very question to a group of intelligent, thrifty women, members of a society I had been asked to address on consumer-buying information. In every case the answer indicated that these women understood all of the terms to mean that the fabrics would shrink no further when washed. The subsequent expressions on their faces as I explained the real meaning of these words were illuminating.

For actually none of these terms has a commonly accepted and definite meaning. The words ‘full-shrunk’ and ‘shrinkproof’ are usually, to put it most kindly, examples of wishful thinking, for a full-shrunk fabric rarely exists. ‘Shrunk’ and ‘pre-shrunk’ at their best mean only that the fabrics have been shrunk some before the consumer purchases them; at their not uncommon worst they mean less than nothing. How much more a fabric will shrink is one of those unseen performance factors we have mentioned. Some manufacturers put a limit of 2 per cent on the further shrinkage to be expected of a fabric marked ‘pre-shrunk.’ Others limit it to 3, 4, or 5 per cent, and I have even seen ‘pre-shrunk’ materials that shrank 8 per cent. This perhaps will explain why I say the terms have no real meaning.

As for the term‘washable’ — this prankish word is the most treacherous of all, for in bitter fact it frequently means only that the fabric can be passed through water without disintegrating like paper. As one eminent technician remarked, ‘The label adopted by the wash-dress industry furnishes washing instructions incapable of removing honest soil from any wash dress.’

Not long since, a greatly irritated gentleman stalked into my office and tossed a freshly laundered but rumpled man’s shirt on to my desk. With a look of last-straw exasperation he said, ‘If that’s honesty, then this country’s come to a pretty pass. That shirt carries a label that says in plain English “preshrunk.” Yet by actual measurement its collar band shrank more than a quarter of an inch the first time it was laundered. How long has this kind of double-crossing been going on?’

Sympathetic as I was with the gentleman’s irritation, I could only reply that ‘this kind of thing’ had been going on for a very long time, and the wonder was not that he had discovered it, but that he had not discovered it before. One can only assume that the wash lady and the commercial laundries have borne the burden of many a complaint not rightfully theirs.

A recent hearing before the Federal Trade Commission on the shrinkage problems for cotton yard goods entered upon the record some remarkable facts presumably only for trade knowledge. Consumers will find some of them interesting if maddening. The New York Board of Trade has had a committee studying the cotton-goods shrinkage situation for four years. The committee eventually proposed to the Commission that all cotton piece goods be marked with the percentage they might be expected to shrink. Consumers will find this rational, and certainly not asking too much. Nevertheless the converters who are the fabric middlemen, and the finishers who create the surface textures and finishes, sprang to battle. Admittedly it was a fine idea, said their spokesman, and they would gladly cooperate, but the thing was clearly impossible. Too many variables entered into the complicated business to make it fair to ask a finisher to guarantee the percentage a cloth would shrink, and if the finishers could not guarantee it the converters, of course, were helpless, since they depended upon the finishers for their guarantee.

Before you feel a little sorry for the finishers and converters, however, let me mention that there is a shrinkage process known as Sanforizing which may be used on cotton, linen, or rayon fabrics and which definitely predetermines the amount of shrinkage of such fabrics — a process which any finisher may be licensed to employ. And this is why various witnesses at the shrinkage hearing asked somewhat dryly how it happens that, if a finisher is asked to do a Sanforizing job on goods, he can not only pre-shrink them accurately but also offer a guarantee that no more than three quarters of 1 per cent further shrinkage will occur, and yet virtuously insist that he could not offer a guarantee of 2 per cent, 5 per cent, or whatever was necessary under other shrinkage processes.

But of course cotton goods are not the only fabrics affected by this shrinkage factor. Silk, linen, rayon, and wool also must contend with the condition. I have here a bulletin from the National Better Business Bureau which states that about 50 per cent of the woolen and worsted yarn goods made into women’s and children’s clothing is not pre-shrunk to any degree at all. This is estimated to represent 13,000,000 garments annually, and dry cleaners say that consumer complaints on woolens and worsteds amount to some six million dollars’ worth of claims a year, of which 75 per cent are due to shrinkage. If you add to this the amount of goods returned to dress departments of stores, half of which is because of fabric faults, and 20 per cent of that half because of shrinkage, and if you realize that this comes to many millions of dollars a year, you will perhaps conceive the extent of the waste I have mentioned. That this might be avoided is indicated by the determined drive being made currently by the Texurity Guild, an association of refinishers of woolens and worsteds, in which they undertake to set a maximum of 2 per cent for wool fabric shrinkage — a limit arbitrarily set from experimental testing.

III

With even so slight an excursion into the ‘no consumer’s land’ behind the scenes of retailing, it must be plain that there is an utter lack of a concerted attempt on the part of the modern producerseller combine to replace the general information of the older simple buying period when products were few, materials familiar, techniques limited, and consumer needs and specifications commonly understood. Something is clearly needed to bridge the gap opened by the flood of new things — to bridge the distance between the consumer and the actual manufacture of such goods. What should the ‘something’ be?

Well, when the Federal Government buys, it buys according to specifications which state both the construction and performance to be expected of the product. It buys, in short, on a written statement which tells of what the product is made, how it is made, and what it will do in use. The Federal Bureau of Standards determines by tests what standards shall be the guides for these specifications, and Federal buyers purchase not the handsomest, longest-wearing, or most expensive items, but those which, according to their specifications, give the most of the desired qualities for the money allowed for the purchase. This seems rational and clear. Government standards are not necessarily consumer standards, but the principle is identical. Moreover, scarcely a manufacturer in the country but bases his own buying on the same sort of specifications — construction and performance. This, too, appears to be ordinary common sense. And retailers also buy with at least an understood specification in mind, written or not, so that they have, or may have if they wish, a definite idea as to what they are getting. Only the consumer must apparently buy blind, must open his purse and shut his eyes.

Surely what a consumer wants and needs is no more or less than what the professional buyer demands — specific information in terms mutually understood and authoritative. There are an infinite number of terms open to as infinite a number of interpretations; there are ‘special pleaders’ in industry who have reason to prefer one interpretation, though aware that consumers assume another. Specifications wipe out such Jekyll-and-Hyde words.

Many explanations are proffered as to why such simple practical information is not supplied consumers. Some say it is because manufacturers working in a fluctuating market for raw materials dislike to be pinned down to specifications which will be handed on to the consumer and prevent the substitution of cheaper elements when the market pushes the price of a specified element too high — too high, that is, for the margin of profit a store buyer needs for his department. Again, they say that manufacturers hesitate to set up standards for their products because of the costly burden involved in properly policing all stages of the work to produce accurate results. That the Bureau of Standards and various associations and laboratories have proved repeatedly that standards, once installed, actually cut the cost of production is usually ignored. And indeed there are those who believe with some resignation that inertia, habit, and a worship of the ‘let well enough alone’ policy are responsible for much of the manufacturer’s reluctance to set up consumer specifications in a form to carry through the point of sale.

These reasons may very well be accurate; but, just as I have tried to show in an earlier article1 that the real mainspring of to-day’s retailing mistakes is a fundamentally mistaken public-relations policy, so it seems to me that as direct results of that policy there are other and equally mistaken psychological factors much more responsible for this current plague of ‘buying blind.’

Of these surely the most extraordinary is what I can only call the double standard of ethics which exists among many of those who make or sell consumer goods, particularly evident among retailers, less often discovered among producers considerably removed from the point of sale. It is a curious and shocking kind of rationalization of dishonesty which permits a man of the highest personal integrity to compromise complacently with definitely dishonest merchandising practices under the blanket cover of ‘good business.’ This is an unpleasant fact usually never even whispered in public, but often admitted behind closed doors and off the record. That there are conspicuous exceptions to this rule would be silly to deny; there are manufacturers, ‘middlemen,’ and retailers who have business ideals as fine as their personal standards, but under the present conditions not only are they apt to be penalized by unfair competition, but also they are so few as to be unable to balance the scales in the consumer mind against the trend toward distrust.

As in the case of the testimony in the shrinkage hearing, trade leaders will offer a thousand and one reasons why consumer information is not practical; these specious reasons run the gamut of assertions from the familiar one that consumers do not want facts to the naïvely egotistical statement that such and such an industry is too technical, too complicated for the layman — much less the laywoman — to understand. There are those who sincerely believe that such information must of its nature be so profound and mystic that consumers could not utilize it. And there are those who make the gesture of providing information by deliberately making it so profound and mystic that it cannot be used.

To say that honest, understandable construction and performance specifications cannot be given every buyer at the point of sale is to show either an ignorance of or an unwillingness to recognize what has already been accomplished by a few admirable organizations. For instance, although rug makers insist that theirs is a uniquely technical and involved profession, so complicated that to mark any of their products intelligibly for the consumer would require a label the size of a book or terminology so obscure no layman could understand it, one pioneering manufacturer of fine rugs has managed to create a label of remarkably small and handy size which is attached to his rugs — so long as the retailer permits it — and presents all the necessary facts clearly and simply. The hosiery industry, too, is another ‘highly complicated’ business which for long has been utterly chaotic in its own manufacturing standards and its consumer promotion. Nevertheless of its own accord this industry has been putting its house in order, and has developed not only construction standards for its producers to follow, but grade labels which it proposes to stamp on all grades below those which carry brand names and are presumed to be arbitrarily the most nearly flawless.

There are other isolated cases in which manufacturers have boldly broken with current custom and supplied consumer specifications with their products. And certain of the large mail-order houses are admittedly giving their customers a better break than metropolitan retailers have ever attempted. I asked the chief technician of a mail-order laboratory the other day how she explained the fact that local retailers lag so far behind those who sell by mail in giving their customers usable buying data, and her answer was perhaps more illuminating than she realized. ‘Well, you know,’she said, ‘we mail-order people after all are engaged in interstate commerce, and are necessarily under the direct supervision of the Federal Trade Commission. Local stores are n’t, you see.‘

The thing that awakening consumers do not quite realize is that this discussion is not new. Nothing about it is unique, radical, or startling. For many years conventions of all sorts of trade associations have been lightly tossing about the subject of the consumer and his growing restlessness without ever reaching any agreed conclusion that develops more than word power. Speaking at a recent consumer-retailer session, Miss Ruth O’Brien, chief of the Division of Textiles and Clothing of the United States Bureau of Home Economics, said: ‘When are we going to get action on standards and labels for consumer goods? For fifteen years I have been coming to these meetings, and for fifteen years we have talked about information for the consumer, but up to now the action that has been taken could be counted on the fingers of my two hands.’ Even that is a rather generous estimate if one eliminates imitation efforts and gestures to the grandstand.

It is difficult in a situation where words have for so long taken the place of action, where conferences and commissions bog down by their own weight and pomposity, to gauge accurately the sincerity of any new move toward constructive solution of the problem. So many red herrings are daily dragged across the trail that it is not surprising the target is lost in the confusion. Such ridiculous controversies as the current feverish one concerning whether such terms as ‘ crepe,’‘print,’ ‘taffeta,’and ‘pure dye’ belong to the silk industry, or the rayon industry, or any other trade, simply delay the ultimate objective. After all, the simple solvent of all these complexities is just the one question, ‘Does this correctly inform the consumer or not?’

Nevertheless, in spite of the record of futility chalked up against retailing leaders, there seems now to be for the first time in the era real hope of the consumer’s eventually receiving the general and specific data he needs. Within the National Retail Dry Goods Association is a group of leaders headed by men who appear both sincere and determined in their effort to alter the situation. Their published programme insists that there must be construction and performance specifications supplied by the producers of goods, and that there must be a dictionary of terms developed to pull together the fantastic jumble now distorting the language of selling. In other words, they admit that the consumer has the right to know, in definite terms of standards and comparison, just how fine, how strong, and how absorbent a ‘fine, strong, and fully absorbent’ towel may be.

How far this organized retail activity will go, only time can tell — particularly as two dangers have recently arisen with the quickening restlessness of consumers and the publicity given the situation. One is the possibility that retailers and manufacturers, in a desire to utilize facts in their sales promotion, may hasten the setting of standards before they have been properly defined and tested. The other and far graver peril is the possibility that facts may become part of a new American racket, that the abuse of the words ‘tested and approved’ may become just one more promotion trick.

Concerning the first danger, all responsible technicians are seriously anxious. Products to be safely offered consumers on the competitive ground of construction and performance should have not only formal laboratory testing, but also the homely trials of active service under the conditions they must meet in consumer use. Otherwise trouble is apt to follow. For instance, there is the story of aluminum foil as an insulating material. According to laboratory tests, this product proved to have extraordinary insulating qualities, and it was hailed and sold as ideal for wall insulation in house construction. It was advertised and promoted against a background of these laboratory findings, and was received enthusiastically by consumers. After some time, however, the burden of complaints from consumers became voluminous; the material appeared to have stopped insulating. An investigation was made, and no one was more sadly shocked than its makers when it was discovered that some of the aluminum foil had vanished into space. Only then was it learned that aluminum foil in the presence of lime, as in wall plaster, may disintegrate into a gas, leaving the insulation conspicuous by its absence. But understand, there was here no intent to deceive the public or withhold information — only the result of incomplete and inadequate tests.

The second danger I mentioned is sufficiently grave to warrant the attention of every responsible member of society. For if there is anything more treacherous than withholding necessary information, it is exploiting a human being’s hunger for information.

There is a steadily growing tendency to make use of the words ‘tested and approved’ or their implication in advertising and promotion, particularly of the retail type. Too often the words are both the beginning and the end of all the testing which has been done. Not only should the consumer be told who did the testing, how it was done, and what the results mean in terms of comparative performance, but there should definitely be some manner of licensing testing laboratories, so that the consumer may know they have official standing and credited efficiency. Nor, it seems to me, should a store be permitted to call its own testing department a ‘Bureau of Standards’; for there should be but one such in this country, and that in Washington, where it belongs.

There are many organizations these days attempting to evaluate products for consumers. Some are sincere in their desire to be of service, but are so limited in funds that their tests are both inadequate and dangerous. And there are many organizations that see in the demand for information no more than an opportunity to cash in on the wellknown credulity of the general public. Let me quote a few sentences from a market letter I received a few weeks ago, written by an organization which does a good deal of manufacturer-retailer merchandising: —

Considerable interest is being shown currently by retailers in movement among consumers for more detailed and more accurate information. Various consumer groups are forming special committees to accelerate trend. National Retail Dry Goods Association is considering formation of group to be known as ‘Consumer-Retailer Council.’ No doubt that this apparent demand of consumers for better guidance in buying is claiming more and more of retailers’ attention. Formation of such organizations as Consumers’ Emergency Council and possibility that Federal Government may establish special division to further trend cannot be ignored. However, we feel that immediate importance of this program to manufacturers may be seriously questioned. No doubt that a vociferous minority is interested. On the other hand, we believe that vast majority of consumers are totally uninterested in so-called merchandise standards and will remain that way for a long time to come. We see promotional benefits to manufacturers tying up with the movement, but we feel that in general its significance can be and has already been considerably inflated.

The italics in this remarkable statement are mine. Its implications I leave to your common sense.

Somewhere near the beginning of this story I said that there was a solution to this critical problem so simple and so plain that it was consistently overlooked by both retailers and consumer crusaders.

That solution is nothing more spectacular or original than a return — or an advance — to common honesty. Not lip-service honesty, not a double-standard honesty, not a sleight-of-hand bookkeeping honesty, but the clean and literal honesty once taught us as the bedrock of human decency. That consumers have a vital obligation to meet such honesty with intelligence and appreciation is true, but stubbornly to disregard the signs of consumer rebellion is to invite disaster. Yet, if a renewal of common honesty is to come, it should arrive not through fear of the Federal Trade Commission or any other ‘goblins that’ll get you if you don’t watch out.’ It should come rather in recognition of the profound truth that the greatest insurance of industrial probity and prosperity is an informed and discriminating consumer public.

  1. ‘Fear the Facts and Fool the Women,’ in the April 1937 Atlantic. — EDITOR