Consumers usually have a lot on their minds. So much so that they have little time to think about what makes them pay higher prices, or hurts the quality of goods they buy. That's the main job of the Consumer Federation of America, a nonprofit group in Washington. Visiting the Monitor's Boston offices recently, Jack Gillis, CFA's public-affairs director, discussed what he considers some of the top consumer trends.
Internet commerce "We think there's more good in the Internet than bad," says Mr. Gillis. Access and information, he says, have allowed us to be much more price-competitive - but not more quality-competitive.
Getting on the Internet is so easy that a Web site run out of someone's kitchen can look exactly like another site run by a substantial organization - one that gives lots of guarantees and consumer rights.
Search engines are advertising-driven. You think, "This is great! My computer searched everything in the world, and here's the three best sites for this thing that I want," says Gillis. Few consumers know that what pops up after a search is an ad-driven result.
There's a tremendous amount of misleading pricing information on the Web. A good deal suddenly becomes a bad deal because of exorbitant postage-and-handling charges.
Gillis confirms what many Web users already know: Internet-privacy concerns are rising. Knowing more about the "purchase process" reduces the chances companies will send us information we don't want, he says. But you have to disclose a lot about your buying behavior. "That's going to be a major tension between a potential consumer benefit and a potential consumer harm."
Telecommunications "We still don't have the monopoly broken up, either in long distance or local access," Gillis says. "Cable, too, is still an incredibly expensive monopoly. It's [as if] the utility company controlled every appliance that you plugged into your outlet."
Product safety As products become more sophisticated, Gillis says, it's becoming more and more difficult for us to determine whether they're safe.
The service industry Airline tickets are one of the most expensive purchases we make, Gillis points out. Yet there's no guarantee the provider will give us what we really purchased - speedy travel.
"The good news is that consumers have become much more vocal because of the Internet," Gillis says "and it's got [the airlines'] attention."
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