American consumers are increasingly unhappy with the quality of goods and services businesses provide, with the way government protects consumer interests and with consumer leaders, whom they perceive to be out of touch with their problems, according to a national survey released yesterday.
The study, by Louis Harris and Associates, an opinion research firm, was based on 1,252 individual interviews conducted last October. The Atlantic Richfield Co. financed the $85,000 survey, which offers a new perspective on data collected in a 1976 consumer study Harris made.
"We learned that Americans are more worried about a number of consumer problems than they were seven years ago," Harris said.
But the most startling finding, he said, was the pervasive strength and depth of the consumer movement, which he described as "the phenomenon of consumers, both as individuals and as groups, to try to have their own voices and interests better represented in the marketplace."
Harris said that the study establishes that the American people both need and have confidence in the consumer movement. "If there were no movement up to now, let me assure you that the American people would go out and organize one," he said.
Significant findings included:
* Consumers favor government regulation of safety, health and truth in advertising, but oppose government regulation as an abstract, general idea. Ninety-four percent of those surveyed think that government should approve new drugs before they are sold, 88 percent think government should approve new toys for safety before they come onto the market and 67 percent want government to decide whether television ads are misleading. But only 21 percent of those surveyed think there should be more government regulation in general.
* High prices still worry a majority of Americans, but that isn't as big a concern as it was seven years ago. Sixty-seven percent said they worry a great deal today about prices, compared to 77 percent in 1976.
* Consumers who use credit should bear more of the costs for it, a majority said. Seventy-two percent agreed that if it cost the retailer more to handle a credit card than to accept cash, then the credit card customer should pay more than the cash customer.
Among today's consumer concerns are product breakdowns and hazards, misleading packaging and labeling, failure of companies to handle complaints properly and inadequate guarantees or warranties.
Seventy-six percent believe that the value they get for their money on most goods and services has "gotten worse" compared to 10 years ago, 54 percent think consumers get a "worse deal in the marketplace" today and 59 percent think the quality of products and services has deteriorated in the last decade.
Consumers gave government bad marks for its response to consumer problems. President Reagan and his administration are doing a "poor" or "only fair" job of protecting consumer interests, according to 66 percent of those surveyed. Congress rated even lower, with 76 percent saying that they were doing a "poor" or "only fair" job of protecting consumer interests.
Leaders of the consumer movement, including Ralph Nader, lost ground in the new Harris study, with 45 percent of the public saying that consumer movement leaders have lost touch with consumers. In 1976, only 22 percent thought that the leaders were out of touch.
Nader, after examining the survey, said it had internal inconsistencies.
"The Better Business Bureau gets a 54 percent positive rating, the Environmental Protection Agency gets 44 percent and I get 39 percent," Nader said. "Who's kidding whom?"