&Quot;Consumer Policy Proposals&Quot; Discussion Paper

Hans B. Thorelli, Indiana University
[ to cite ]:
Hans B. Thorelli (1979) ,"&Quot;Consumer Policy Proposals&Quot; Discussion Paper", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06, eds. William L. Wilkie, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 477-480.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 1979      Pages 477-480

"CONSUMER POLICY PROPOSALS" DISCUSSION PAPER

Hans B. Thorelli, Indiana University

The total range of consumer policy may be divided into consumer information, education and protection (Thorelli and Thorelli, 1977). In a general sense, consumer information comprises all data about individual markets and offerings. Consumer education is consumer civics. It provides the insights necessary to develop citizens into intelligent consumers. Consumer protection consists of measures taken by others than the individual consumer to safeguard consumer rights. It extends all the way from antitrust via complaints handling to product safety.

Consumer policymakers include consumer organizations, other citizen groups, business, government, educational institutions and the mass media. There are almost infinite tradeoff and reinforcement possibilities among information, education and protection, and among various makers of consumer policy in the struggle to enforce consumer rights and stimulate consumer responsibility. There is plenty of room for plenty of consumer policy proposals.

The paper by Goodwin, Mahajan and Bhatt describes the procedures devised by the Better Business Bureaus involved in arbitration, and cites data compiled from one of 100 such bureaus over a 4-year period. The paper by Moschis deals with the effectiveness of consumer-related courses in imparting consumer skills in grades 6-8 and 9-12, providing an empirical study of 806 students in 13 Wisconsin schools. The paper by Ritchie and Claxton presents the framework and methodologies in a large Canadian government-sponsored research project using consumers to identify shopping problems, to order the priorities among them, and to suggest solutions (with one service trade analyzed as an example), and how to go from sounds to things. In other words the Ritchie-Claxton paper constructs a consumer input scheme to generate consumer policy proposals.

ON CONSUMER DISSATISFACTION: CONSUMER ARBITRATION AS AN ALTERNATIVE DISPUTE RESOLUTION MECHANISM

It is a long, long way from consumer satisfaction to consumer disputes. Attempts to solve the problems in this field branch over all three parts of consumer policy. Broadly conceived consumer education by training in marketplace phenomena, decisionmaking, budgeting would better prepare consumers for the realities of product performance and dealer dealings. Consumer information if easily accessible and readily used would enable the consumer to choose among products and sources with discernment. Much attention is given to individual complaints handling procedures by policy-makers in the legislative and executive circles in government, in businesses as well as in consumer-oriented groups, and of course in the academy, sometimes eagerly anxious to join in policymaking. Consumer protection has become the cry of the present.

The American Arbitration Association, since 1968 acting through its National Center for Dispute Settlement (NCDS), has played a key role in the development of all consumer arbitration programs. Particularly famed has been its special program with the Cleaners and Dyers Institute, now a quarter of a century in operation. New York City's Small Claims Court, which handles over 70,000 consumer complaints a year, arbitrated more than 50,000 such complaints in 1974. Most cases are decided on the spot!

The innovative program by the NCDS in Albany is another extension of arbitration. Seven of Montgomery Ward's stores are precommitted to arbitrate any customer complaint that has gone through its grievance procedures and remained unsettled. A similar program exists in Harrisburg in cooperation with the Pennsylvania League for Consumer Protection and the Pennsylvania Retailers Association, with Sears, Bowmans and Pomeroys participating. In the Cleveland-Akron office, the NCDS has arranged for the arbitration of consumer complaints referred by the Action Line, a local radio station, and the City Human Rights Commission. Some state attorneys general use arbitration procedures to settle disputes. The relatively new legal insurance devices appear to be edging toward arbitrating consumer disputes. Some local license boards have recently taken a more lively interest in complaints against businesses, such as home improvement itinerants. I have long advocated that such complaint-ridden service industries be required to post a Performance bond and to submit disputes to arbitration.

So while arbitration in consumer disputes isn't such a new thing, it is always news when businesses Join together to do something for the consumer. It would have been interesting to hear from our authors as to why the mechanism as developed by the BBB has not been used more. They might have come to this themselves had they cataloged the DISADVANTAGES of BBB arbitration as well as the advantages. One such reason they do give, however: the BBB itself has failed to educate the public and the businessman about the process. But there are other--ms. There is the criticism as to whether the BBB itself should serve as the administrator of such programs as it is financed by business and has served as the mediator in the disputes going to arbitration. (The NCDS and AAA Regional Offices in Tucson, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Miami conduct cases referred to it by the BBB.) Then, the program exists in only 100 places, primarily metromarkets. What happens to the nonmetro markets? Whereas there are plenty of disputes between consumers and the big companies, by far the largest number and the hardest to resolve satisfactorily nowadays are with the locals, the super offenders, where even a manufacturer has a hard time applying pressure. A Harris Poll apparently revealed that 44 percent of those who complain to the BBB remain dissatisfied, and 23 percent have a negative image of the Bureau as a result of the way their complaints were handled.

Another disadvantage is that there is a tendency on the part of some BBBs to hold back their offers of arbitration in cases deemed nonarbitrable. There is also the limitation of the program to marketplace disputes not including damages which might transcend the actual service or product complaint being arbitrated. Further several BBBs have set the limits on the dollar amount that may be arbitrated too low to be helpful to consumers. Do the BBBs know their 3 Rs: Refund, Repair, Replace? And, of course, overriding all these disadvantages is the reluctance of many businessmen to participate voluntarily in the process. As Table 2 reveals, over the 4-year period reported in one such bureau, in 35 percent of the instances where arbitration was suggested the business involved refused to take part. Nationally, 4 out of 10 refuse.) While the time span from hearing to award is substantially shorter than a full court trial (it would have been considerably more helpful to have the span from the initiation of the complaint), only 10 percent were completed within a month, while 40 percent took longer than three months.

This paper is a clear, succinct, well-written exposition of the BBB arbitration procedures and the experience of one bureau. There is, however, a great need to fit this arbitration procedure into a theory or a grand scheme of consumer redress. The tone is also a bit too enthusiastic; a more critical approach is essential in a research paper. Nationally, since the BBB arbitration program began 6 years ago, 2,300 cases have been heard. (No figures on how many resulted in awards.) Actually the BBBs are said to handle 1.5 million "complaints" a year, which would mean 9 million over the same six-year period. Suddenly 2,300 arbitration cases doesn't sound like much. Incidentally, it would have been very interesting to have been told the number of cases in the present study (was it embarrassingly small?).

Needed is a matrix for measuring arbitration as compared to other devices as a complaints handling mechanism. Such a set of criteria should be easily generated by these authors. As a beginning allow me:

Speed

Credibility and fairness

Local anchorage

Consumer representation

Product specialization

Sanctions and their effectiveness

Voluntary vs. mandatory

Number of complaints handled

Number of settlements resulting in consumer satisfaction

Number of settlements satisfying both buyer and seller

Suitability as element of integrated complaint system

Avoidance of business as well as consumer harassment

Accessibility

Inexpensiveness to consumers

Consumer orientation

Enforceability

Extent of public awareness

Total resource demands

Informality

Value of complaints handled

Many European countries--especially smaller ones like the Netherlands and Sweden--have developed quite effective procedures, using hearing boards composed of representatives from the industry involved and consumer representatives to decide on complaints. As many industry members belong to national organizations which collectively bind them to accept hearing board awards, enforcement of recalcitrants becomes a matter for civil law--violation of contract. In this country, it would be interesting to compare the experience and organization of BBB arbitration with that of MACAP, the major appliance industry consumer action panel.

FORMAL CONSUMER EDUCATION: AN EMPIRICAL ASSESSMENT

There is a tendency to push to the schools anything that society has a hard time coping with (witness the discussions of sex education, marriage courses) and then complaining that the schools have failed. To evaluate the effectiveness of any educational program is difficult, despite the decades since Dewey and the countless doctoral dissertations of the schools of education collecting dust on library shelves.

Here the author has presented an empirical study designed to measure differences between those young people who have and those who have not taken many consumer-related courses in 13 schools in Wisconsin. He discovered, simply enough, that the differences were not particularly great or significant. A serious deficiency is that most every subject had taken at least one broadly or vaguely consumer-related course.

In arriving at this conclusion the author learned a goodly number of interesting things. And like other important areas, consumer education may be bantered as well as battered around casually. He suggests, in addition to what is taught and how it is taught as possible and probable culprits that perhaps the students enrolling in such courses are those who make poor grades and gravitate to "pud" courses. (This at least used to be a matter easy to ascertain by examining the record or by asking the students themselves.) Of course, if this is true, consumer education is working. It brings the level of the "low" student to the level of the "high" student who did not take many courses. This is a fuzzy aspect of the paper. Could there have been a control group who took no courses? Were all courses elective? Were any obligatory?

Why not query whether the teachers are well selected for these courses. Health in my day used to be taught by the football coach. (He also taught social studies. It is a wonder he was not also into sex education.) In the area I live consumer education is an elective currently taught by the typing and shorthand teacher. Perhaps the author was not only at the mercy of school authorities in selecting his participants but also hesitated to query the teachers involved in the courses. What was the awareness and attitude of the teachers toward consumer education? Also what did the teachers say about the results of the study?

Missing is a scheme for defining, grading and weighting the wide range of the consumer-related courses, including (but not limited to) home economics, economics, environmental science, and career guidance. This may very well be the most serious problem with the study. Actually the author may have grappled with content analysis of some kind as he examined each "type" of consumer-related course and its relation to consumer skills (as well as age-group). However, this is not clear and neither is the author's definition of "type" of course. In perusing the tables one cannot but help noticing that even though some differences were statistically significant, they were nonetheless small.

The distance between a sixth grader (age 12) and a twelfth grader (age 18) is vast in terms of interest, concern, understanding--in short, in maturation. The tests to measure the skills appear too complicated for persons of 12 years, though Consumers Union claims even pre-school children should participate in consumer education. I am concerned that the consumer finance management question was not well thought through, especially as I am not at all certain that very many ACR members would come up with high scores.

On information-seeking, the method of counting sources and importance of information was in line with the current state of the art. It would have been exciting to see what greater role, if any, these information seekers play in disseminating information, using some sort of opinion-leader test (Thorelli, Becker, Engledow, 1975). As pointed out by the author, Table 2 has special relevance for social policy. If lower class students are to take advantage of the opportunity of mobility schools must energize them by particular efforts not least to change attitudes toward acquiring knowledge. This underprivileged group is likely not to move forward as long as their information is limited.

Consumer education is a hot topic. Publishers have been churning out materials haplessly. Companies such as J.C. Penney and Sears have serious, well-constructed ready-to-go consumer kits, as does, of course, Consumers Union. So, too, does the HEW. Our neighbor to the north had devoted considerable resources to this matter. Scandinavia, especially Norway, has been successful in incorporating consumer education into the obligatory programs in high schools.

Lets give consumer education a real chance under clear auspices. As usual with empirical data of any consequence a multitude of questions remain unanswered, but not unanswerable!

IN SEARCH OF ACTIONS TO REDUCE CONSUMER SHOPPING PROBLEMS

Primarily methodological in nature this paper's strength lies in its systems approach. Using the results of a splendid extension of a management technique for program planning to the shopping problems of consumers combined with extensive interviews, the authors analyze data by conjoint and other measures and present one example in the automobile repair services. They close their paper by indicating procedures aimed at assuring the utilization or at least the awareness of the data by policymakers, principally in the government.

It is all too easy to think local in policy questions. And yet it is Just in these questions that it is especially important to think ecologically. Problems may appear the same in all industrialized countries, but solutions rarely are--though superficially they may have much in common. Canada is a vast country, with 20 million inhabitants, a large immigrant population, plenty of nonmetro markets, and surely as many differences in outlook from the Maritime provinces to the Pacific northwest as exist in the U.S., even if the moon over Miami is the same as that over British Columbia. Maintaining a national policy in consumer matters has surely not been eased in recent years with all provinces, and not just Quebec, acting independently in a Canadian "province-rights" stance. This project is a noble attempt in adapting and extending methods to let the consumer speak for himself.

Figure 1 is of course far from complete. One important ingredient missing is the media. And then too it ignores that the one most important source of consumer information to the consumer is the manufacturer himself. Arrows in some cases need to go in both directions, such as lobby between government-suppliers and 'consumer information, consumers-government.

A truly severe omission is a full and clear presentation of the method of selection of the participants in the Nominal Groups; a complete description of the participants, other than upper/lower income, men/women; the number of groups and the number of participants in each group. In fact, the whole multi-phase project hangs on the sampling for the Nominal Groups. For a reader not familiar with NGT surely at least a paragraph should have been included. Some sort of Justification for using five "major urban" centers, one in each of the five regions, should have found space here.

I consider refreshing the use of qualitative insights by average consumers, in the group context used here, regarding some critical problem dimensions in shopping. Too often professionals, including consumer professionals, look with disdain on lay inputs. For years I have recommended to industry the use of consumer panels--not to determine policy in the last analysis, but to put forward ideas and to help order priorities. Even many of the consumer organizations in Europe fail to see the need or value of consulting average consumers.

Table 3 giving results of the analysis of the conjoint measures in the one aspect of the study reported is tantalizing. While space constraints explain why the data is so sparse, the lack of data nonetheless remains the real problem of the entire paper, and why as presented here it can only be viewed as a methodological piece and even incompletely documented as such. A fascinating prospect (apparently not observed by the authors) would be to use the results of this kind of study (as indicated by Table 4, for example) as the basis for broad-gauged public opinion polling. One of the results from our field studies of consumers in the U.S. and Germany--with excursions in Norway--was that average consumers far less than consumer advocates, but somewhat more than Information Seekers (the person who prepurchase-collects more data on products/services from more sources and values information more), look to the government and to regulation for solutions.

Of the five groups of product/services (only three of which were identified), the researchers picked for illustration the one where objective data is hard to come by, where local variations are the greatest and data collected may very well be valid for a short period only. This was unfortunate. Incidentally, studies from Sweden in the area of choice of automobile repair facilities indicate that the position of consumers has been greatly enhanced by the use of government inspection/diagnostic centers where they can get independent/objective information on the state of health of their automobile.

For some years Canada's Department of Consumer and Corporate Affairs maintained Box 99, a mailing address for consumers to contact for information or to lodge complaints. By 1972 20,000 complaints were registered annually and compiled in such a way as to allow for ready identification by problem, industry, locale. Even though the persons who availed themselves of this service were undoubtedly largely Information Seekers rather than your average consumer, to identify areas for attention this data bank could have been put to great uses. But as we say in the academy, never start with anyone else's data or for that matter his assumptions or method, if you can help it.

Nevertheless it is true to say that the authors have exhibited great ingenuity in transplanting and adapting for marketing research use a method of eliciting from consumers themselves how they view their shopping problems. It will be exciting to read the complete report.

SUGGESTIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH

The National Science Foundation has funded several projects ostensibly devoted to consumer policy research proposals. One such project by the Consumer Affairs Institute listed 63 "research suggestions and considerations.'' Another, by the Center for Policy Alternatives at MIT listed 67 research priorities over three broad areas: research on consumers, research on policymakers and the policy process, and research on business practices. I suggest additionally a study on the impact (or lack of impact) of the research sponsored by NSF during its period of involvement with consumer research. Those heady days of lush grants may never return--someone would render a public service by examining what was accomplished.

Perhaps it is time to suggest that we should move beyond those research areas heavily oriented toward what I call consumer psychology--psyching out the consumerCand the extensive use of sophisticated analytical tools on data of doubtful quality, sophomores of doubtful representivity, and topics of doubtful interest. We need to look to other disciplines, such as political science and organization theory (Thorelli, 1964). We also appear to forget that consumers constitute a key element of the market system as such. What are the effects of price controls on the consumer? How do laws/regulations affect consumers? What are the dysfunctional consequences of protective measures? There is an incredible underuse of court and Federal Trade Commission data. What are the consumer's problems in nonmetro markets? What are the consumer's strategies in the marketplace (when in doubt buy the most expensive, the least expensive; buy the branded item, the items that have been around the longest)? When does shopper tedium set in--and what conclusions may be drawn regarding channel design and city planning? What can standardization do for consumers (three sizes of toothpaste instead of twenty-six)? How much can metrication help the consumer in making choices?

It is easy to add to the kaleidoscope of research problems and policy issues. Surely we should be able to push comparative studies further along. What about the lot of the consumer under different economic systems? What is the cost to individual and society of the endless queues in Soviet stores and the endless bargaining in the bazaars of the Third World? A systematic comparison of the similarities and differences of the ghetto consumer and the consumer in developing countries has yet to be made.

Barely touched is the consumer education area. We need more study on clientele groups: aging, nonmetro, disadvantaged. As the paper here showed, some control of the content of consumer ed programs is probably necessary--and yet we know too little of what should go into them. In the area of product safety we need to face the tradeoffs between bans and regulations on one hand and informational programs and education on the other. In the area of consumer ethics, the need is great to get consumers to take marketplace responsibility after over a decade of emphasis on their rights. No dearth of research opportunity here.

There is a growing body of literature on labeling as a means of consumer information. Is it true, as often claimed, that labels are viewed by consumers as quality guarantees? Is there a difference in this regard between people who read the labels and those who merely see them? Would there be less misunderstanding in a combined labeling-certification program as advocated by us? (Thorelli and Thorelli, 1977). How effective is counter-information over time? Is consumer information overload a consideration in public policy? Researchers have discovered that some consumers actually avoid information. Who are these consumers? Do they make poorer marketplace decisions than others?

Of special value to business and consumer groups and other private consumer policymakers would be the development of standardized consumer satisfaction scales, analogous to the instruments of measuring employee satisfaction now routinely used by many progressive companies.

The nonmarket consumer participation in management decisions and in public and private consumer policy formation and administration is another area of interest. Corporate hot lines, consumer affairs departments and consumer panels are as much political institutions as they are market phenomena. To what extent may fruitful analogies be drawn between the labor movement and the consumer movement? What is the futurology of consumerism? To what extent can we expect consumer policy to develop on a pluralist basis vs. as a result of adversary proceedings before courts and legislative committees? How does one explain the phenomenon of Ralph Nader? Researchers interested in the study of the consumer movement or of consumer leaders in America should note the Center for the Study of the Consumer Movement, a documentary goldmine recently established by Consumers Union (but by no means limited to CU or CU leaders). If interested write Mrs. Sybil Shainwald, Director of the Center, c/o Consumers Union.

Speaking more broadly, it seems to me that academics can be helpful in the formation of private and public consumer policy in a variety of ways, such as:

Problem definition

Researching policy alternatives and attendant cost-benefit analysis

Evaluation of policy performance

Examination of dysfunctional effects

Public policy forecasting

Development of research and evaluation methodology

I am concerned that we don't do a good enough Job of problem definition. To do this we need more systematic attention to the areas of futurology and environmental trends. A few pungent examples: what will be the consumer policy problems (and opportunities) emanating from such developments as

A majority of women working outside the home

Computerized consumer information banks

Home computers

Interactive TV

The energy crisis

Revival of downtown?

Clearly, in the crucial area of problem definition there is as much room for clear conceptual thinking as for empirical studies. This also applies to the development of coherent philosophies of consumer policy (here again comparative approaches would be helpful). Most countries have developed their consumer policy measures on an ad hoc, staccato basis. While it may be that this pragmatic-existentialist approach in the end is the only one feasible, an overall philosophy might be of considerable value in revealing inconsistencies as well as priorities and in pointing to possible dysfunctional consequences in other areas, such as individual freedom or the preservation of open markets.

We may have come a long way, baby, but there is still a long way to go!

REFERENCES

Hans B. Thorelli, "Political Science and Marketing," in Reavis Cox, Wroe Alderson and S. J. Shapiro, eds., Theory in Marketing (Homewood, Illinois: Irwin, 1964).

Hans B. Thorelli, Helmut Becker and Jack Engledow, The Information Seekers: An International Study of Consumer Information and Advertising Image (Cambridge: Ballinger, 1975).

Hans B. Thorelli and Sarah V. Thorelli, Consumer Information Systems and Consumer Policy (Cambridge: Ballinger, 1977).

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