Pollster Louis Harris yesterday that an opinion research survey conducted by his firm shows broad public support for the consumer movement accompanied by a deep disenchantment with the business community's response to consumer needs.
Harris called the study a "landmark," documenting the phenomenal growth of the consumer movement which he said is "staggeringly" larger than similar ones of the past such as the populist, labor or equal-rights-for-blacks movements.
The consumer constituency dwarfs all of them," Harris told an audience of congressman, business executives and consumer affairs specials on Capitol Hill.
He also said, consumers are disgusted with a whole range of problems they blame on business: soaring prices, products of questionable safety, false advertising claims, "woefully inadequate" service, warranties and guarantees that don't mean anything, lack of redress and "extreme difficulties in receiving common justice in the marketplace."
More than 2,000 people were interviewed for the survey, commissioned by Sentry Insurance: a cross section of 1,510 Americans and 522 people from leadership groups made up of consumer activists, senior business managers, business and government consumer affairs specialists, and insurance and non-insurance regulators.
According to the survey, the business leaders were less in touch with the public's wants and needs than any of the other groups. The consumer activists were more extreme in their criticism and demands on business than was the public, but the survey says people turn to them for help because they do not believe business will reform itself or that big government can regulate it. Instead, the public wants the regulatory process opened up for citizen participation by individuals and by consumer activists.
The public does not lay all of the blame for its problems on business and government. It is critical of its own ability to shop properly: sixty-five per cent said most consumers do not make proper use of product information already available.
But even though 72 per cent of them think they are better shoppers than they were a decade ago, 50 per cent feel that overall they get a worse deal in the marketplace today than they did 10 years ago with few exceptions: seventy per cent feel that product labeling is better and 60 per cent say that products are safer.
The majority are generally optimistic about the future but feel that the problems which have worsened in the last 10 years will continue to deteriorate in the next 10-fifty-five per cent believe the life of products will get shorter and that it will be more difficult to get things repaired; 46 per cent believe the difference between manufacturers' claims and product performance will increase.
Harris says such answers are "a clear early warning to business . . . for far-reaching changes in management and regulation of business."
Some of the same areas of business about which people gripe the most now such as car mechanic and garages are those which will bear watching in the future, but leading everyone's list of targets for consumer action are the food industry, hospitals and the medical profession.
Another area in which the public and the leadership groups agree is on the impact of the consumer movement. To a greater or lesser degree all say that it has given consumers a better deal, that it has kept business on it toes and that it is here to stay.
At the same time, the value of the consumer movement in the eyes of business is "in stark contrast to all other groups sampled." While 59 per cent of the public believes the consumer movement reflects consumers' feelings, only 29 per cent of the business managers do; 67 per cent of the public does not think consumer activists are trouble makers, but only 32 per cent of the business community feels that way. And only 5 per cent of them think consumer activists take the cost of their demands into account, while 43 per cent of the public does.
At the same time that the majority of the public acknowledges that consumer activists' demands have increased the cost of some products, they say they are willing to pay these costs.
At yesterday's briefing, Harris said this ought to make business realize that "if you deliver value for money, people will pay for it."
And in order to get better and safer products and services, the public is willing to try new techniques, which is not surprising because they do not think the old techniques are working.
They support creation of an agency for consumer protection - which is the subject of very heated debate in Congress right now - by 52 to 34 per cent. There also is considerable interest in compulsory consumer education in school; creation of an independent laboratory to test product safety; complaint bureaus in each city; consumer affairs specialists as senior officers in large companies; and consumer representatives on the boards of directors of these companies.
According to the survey, "There is no question," that the business community is "in real trouble with the American people on the consumer issue."
The survey concludes that if business performance in the next 10 years "cannot match the public's expectations, then the ground swell of dissatisfaction, already so strong, will become more strident and more hostile."