6, No. 1, December 2004
The Consumer as Serf
Rotfeld, Auburn University
A few years
ago, frustrated consumer Mark Evanier searched the different Los
Angeles grocery stores in vain for a particular brand of orange
juice. Stores would carry other products from the same company,
but not the orange juice. As he was about to ask one store's manager
for assistance, he noticed a sign above the podium saying, "If
we don't stock what you want, we will be happy to special-order
it for you." But when he asked the manager for a special-order,
he was told, "We don't do special-orders. . . .It's just too much
hassle." The manager apparently felt it was an adequate explanation
to say that he didn't personally put the sign there, though he
also admitted that he had been manager of that store for more
than six years, had never made any special-orders and had not
ever felt compelled to take down the sign (Evanier 2003, p. 124-128).
for a new washer and dryer at Sears, I expressed the not-improbable
concern that the products might go on sale right after we had
them installed. But we were told not to worry, since we would
be rebated the price difference if anything purchased went on
sale for a lower price anywhere, at any competitor, in the following
thirty days. Sure enough, toward the end of the month we spotted
a sale at Sears for ur exact item, getting to the store on the
next available day when we ad the time to get there. However,
we were told we could not get the rebate because their sale had
ended the day before--never mind that nowhere did the offer say
we had to come in while a sale was in progress. We argued, but
we were told we'd have to meet with our original salesman, who
was off that day and whose return time was uncertain. We asked
for the manager, but he refused to come out of his office, telling
the salesperson on duty over the phone that she had to "make us
understand" the apparently hidden terms of the rebate offer.
might add another comment in an effort to gain cooperation from
these store managers. University faculty often try to make a stronger
case for better service when they mention how such a consumer
insensitive encounter would make for an interesting discussion
topic in our classes. At the very least, the manager might fear
a negative customer reaction from all those students, or so we
hope, though I am repeatedly surprised of those times that managers
respond to the frustrated consumers with their own strange efforts
as the passengers milled around to beg, plead or cajole access
to a flight to get home after their assigned aircraft had mechanical
problems, a less-than-service-oriented airline employee was visibly
taking down names of the most disgruntled customers on his own
list. People took down his name to complain to the company, yet
he tried to intimidate everyone as he made it clear that he was
taking down their names for reasons unknown. Around the same period,
I sent information to a magazine about a clearly false advertising
claim in their pages. I sent my letter on personal stationary
and business owner who was forwarded my letter from the magazine
publisher made note of my campus town home address and directed
his own complaint to the magazine saying I was an "ignorant student"
trying to "earn points in a marketing class." (And he never did
show how my evidence of false advertising might be in error.)
I send a letter of service complaint on university stationary
to emphasize my interests as also related to lecture materials,
I risk a response sent to my department chair or dean saying that
I should not be allowed to criticize their fine company in my
classes. My class comments on news reports of a deceptive advertising
claim impelled two students to write letters to companies to ask
for more information. In turn, I later received an envelope from
the provost forwarding a letter of complaint about my lectures
that he had received from the company.
one of the off-campus book stores informed me that they decided
to order the newer edition of a textbook than the one I requested,
even though the new book would not be delivered for my review
until days before the semester started. As I replied with a note
about my preferences for the prior edition which the publisher
had already assured me was still available, I went a bit over
the top, observing how their prices are higher than the other
stores and that such non-service fits within the current discussion
topic for my large-section undergraduate class. Within hours,
the owner of the store contacted my department chair with complaints
of harm to his business and threats to "seek action" against me
in the office of the provost. I can only presume that if I used
my syllabus or web page to publicly provide students with information
on my survey of local textbook prices, similar complaints and
threats would probably arrive in the office.
Auburn University administrator has done more than forward the
information to me as if it was a letter that accidentally had
arrived at the wrong address, I would not be surprised if faculty
at other schools found their administrators to be less than supportive
of academic freedom and consumer sovereignty. I have to wonder
if companies have ever contacted the non-academic employers of
other consumers who register complaints.
consumer activists placed a strong emphasis on consumer information.
Today, if the ability to complain is limited, and if companies
are non-responsive to their customers, information on the Internet
empowers people at least in their information search. Yet even
here corporate power potentially subverts the consumers' interests.
The most Internet-savvy people are unaware that companies can
and do pay to be listed on search engines ahead of lower priced
competitors (Guest 2003). When searching for the best price in
rental cars, the initial screens are limited to certain companies
and only with knowledge of various search tricks could you find
the best deal (Consumerwebwatch 2003).
the old fashioned way for a new computer, television, DVD player
or pair of running shoes can result in buying out of exhaustion
instead of confidence and knowledge. Finding a store that offers
"the lowest prices" is easy. Many will proclaim "We'll match anyone's
price on the same model." The problem is that no two stores carry
the exact same model, so direct comparisons are impossible. Even
on the Internet, it is hard to find direct comparisons of the
exact same product models. The first discount store has model
#755. The second store has model #756 or #755-R. To make it more
confusing, each minor change of numbers does not just increase
or decrease in the quantity of special features, but instead,
alters the overall option bundle. There is no way to directly
compare one to the other. Driving from store to store, finding
the same brands but a different array of model numbers at every
location, the shopper gets increasingly confused and frustrated.
Choice can't be based on price comparisons since the price and
feature bundles are different. Since no two stores carry the exact
same models, several different stores all are safe making a "low-price
Reports will provide information on different brand or product
values, and even note a "best buy," but since they never tell
you what stores carry that brand and specific model, it might
never be found. Seeking a new CD player from a CR recommendation
resulted in numerous hours traveling between different stores
who only had similar models with added features and higher prices.
We were about to give up when the recommended best buy was spotted
by accident in the back of a locked display case at a Sam's Club.
we are living in cartoonist Scott Adams' view of the future in
which capitalism shafts consumers by use of "confusopolies," systems
of marketing by which consumers would be unable to tell what is
going on (Adams 1997). Economists say that prices and transactions
are set by a meeting of supply and demand. But to an economist,
reality is just a concept. I have a different model. As the consumer's
time costs cut into potential savings from "smart shopping," the
purchase actually is made at the store or Internet location where
the confusion curve and the frustration curve meet at a point
of relative psychological equilibrium.
of the losing to the power of monopoly, consumers lose to the
power of a confusopoly. And if they are dissatisfied, they can
try to complain.
1997. The Dilbert Future: Thriving on Stupidity in the 21st
Century. NY:HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
2003. Online Rental-car shopping: How Low Can You Go? Consumer
Reports, 68 (November): 8.
Mark. 2003. Wertham Was Right! Raleigh, NC: TwoMorrows
2003. Have You Heard? Web-Site Roulette. Consumer Reports,
68 (November): 5.
postlude in new issue of Journal of Consumer Affairs, vol.
38 (Summer 2004). Original manuscript, copyright 2004 by ACCI