CONSUMERS' VOICES BEGIN TO BE HEARD

While students in the mid-1960s were marching in protest against the Vietnam War, housewives all over the country were organizing boycotts of supermarkets to protest escalating food prices.Although those boycotts did not have much impact at the time, they represented the birth of the consumer movement that ultimately changed the way the industry thinks.Robert O. Aders, former president, Food Marketing

While students in the mid-1960s were marching in protest against the Vietnam War, housewives all over the country were organizing boycotts of supermarkets to protest escalating food prices.

Although those boycotts did not have much impact at the time, they represented the birth of the consumer movement that ultimately changed the way the industry thinks.

Robert O. Aders, former president, Food Marketing Institute, told SN in 1994: "We didn't understand [in the 1960s] that the industry was becoming alienated from the consumer. We didn't understand that what had been happening in the 1960s wasn't just in Vietnam and Woodstock but also, more subtly, in the supermarket business. Consumers were demanding more and showing impatience if they didn't get it. But in the 1970s, we caught on to the fact that we must do something about this."

The first consumer movements, in 1966, seemed to arise spontaneously in different parts of the country.

The situation prompted Michael J. O'Connor, executive director, Super Market Institute, to blast some of the consumer groups. "Retailers and producers are in a cost squeeze much as is the consumer, and all the boycotts in the world will not bring down food prices," he said in SN.

A poll taken at a Grocery Manufacturers of America meeting that year cited government as the primary cause of higher food costs -- the result, the poll indicated, of increased domestic spending and the costs of the Vietnam War.

Republicans picked up on that theme as the 1966 fall elections approached, urging consumers to put the blame for high price levels on President Johnson "and his free-wheeling spending, which spawned inflation," SN reported.

Besieged by pickets outside their stores and a wave of publicity on television, individual companies fought back with a series of public relations efforts, which SN said included the following:

An effort by George Jenkins, president, Publix Supermarkets, to open his ledgers to housewives to show them that third-quarter net profits were only 0.68% of sales.

A press conference in Kansas by retailers, flanked by William H. Avery, the state's governor, in which consumers were urged to boycott high-priced products instead of retailers.

The placement of pickets by Copps Corp. in front of some of its own stores in Wisconsin, with signs that read, "Lowest legal grocery prices."

An ad by Kroger Co. that said, "Contact your Congressman in Washington, not your grocer in Pittsburgh, to help stop this inflation from becoming even more critical."

Once the 1966 elections were over, the enthusiasm of some protesters also ended. However, the housewife protests did have a long-range impact, as subsequent issues of SN indicated, leading indirectly to decisions by several chains to stop offering games and trading stamps, and prompting the formation of consumer advisory groups at the state and federal levels.

It was in the midst of this situation that consumer affairs was raised to national importance with the appointment by President Johnson of Esther Peterson to the newly created position of special assistant to the president for consumer affairs. Coming to prominence at a time when the consumer movement was beginning, Peterson put a face on the incipient consumer movement.

Peterson sought to reassure the industry that she was not anti-industry and urged more face-to-face discussions and voluntary actions to improve the industry's image with the government and the public.

Peterson, a former teacher and labor organizer, raised the industry's consciousness about consumer issues during her years in government in the 1960s and, subsequently, as consumer affairs adviser at Giant Food in the 1970s -- winning the industry over to the consumers' side on a wide range of issues, including content labeling, unit pricing, phosphate-free detergents, food additives, toy safety and open dating.

The housewife boycotts of the 1960s and Peterson's gentle prodding were factors in industry efforts to become more proactive on behalf of the consumer.

According to George W. Koch, GMA president and chief executive officer, "Consumer protection is everyone's business. The owner, chairman, president and chief executive must concern themselves with consumer protection -- the business they save may be their own."