Proliferating yellow pages

WE found the yellow pages there in the lobby, where new phone books usually are, took one upstairs, and discarded its predecessor. We gave the new book hardly any thought at all, except to notice that it was slenderer than the old one. And every now and then, when searching its pages for a particular product or service, we would fail to find a listing for a firm we knew to be in existence.

Finally, though, came a moment of truth. When we were unable to find a listing for a certain nationally known toy store, we looked the phone book over carefully and realized it was not the ``official'' yellow pages from our local ``Baby Bell.'' Rather, it was an ``independent'' book, delivered in the hopes of acceptance as the real McCoy.

Directory publishing is one of the businesses that has been deregulated since the breakup of the Bell System. The various ``Baby Bells'' have been invading one another's territories with ``independent'' books wherever they see a lucrative market. No wonder: It's been quite a profitable business, with ad rates rising over 10 percent a year of late.

Consumers are confused, and businesses are in a double bind: Either they advertise in two or more books, at great expense, or they opt for one or the other and risk missing customers. The toy store mentioned above does not need to advertise in Brand X Yellow Pages. But for many firms yellow-pages advertising is as essential as the telephone. And it's hard to see how the consumer is served by having two or more sets of yellow pages, none of them quite complete. The whole beauty of ``letting your fingers do the walking,'' after all, is having all the listings in one place.

But what's a free-enterprise, deregulated society to do? Ban these upstarts? We aren't sure. We do know, though, that when the ``real'' yellow pages appeared last week in the lobby, we wasted no time tossing the interloper.

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