THIS book had me rushing to the deep freeze to check the small print on a box of haddock. It was just as consumer champion Colleen Shearer had said: most haddock in South Africa is hake – coloured and smoked. True haddock is only found in the North Atlantic and arctic regions. “So,” writes Shearer, “the Department of Health gave local packers the licence to label coloured and smoked hake as haddock, provided that the true description appeared in the smaller print on the packaging.”
This is just one of the interesting lessons I gleaned from Cons in Consumerland – a lighthearted retrospective which scales the ups and downs of being the Sunday Times consumer columnist over 19 years.
In 1973, Shearer reluctantly took over the job of putting together the “price probe”. The surveys turned into a weekly column which quickly gained national and regional acclaim and had retailers quivering with trepidation while reaching for their Sunday paper. Shearer said she accepted the job believing it wouldn’t last beyond a few months. Nineteen years later, “emotionally-battered and bruised”, she called it a day.
Despite its challenges, Shearer describes those 19 years as “absorbing and fulfilling” and some of the best anecdotes are contained in this collection. The book sticks to its promise to be lighthearted, but also deals with some weighty issues. The book reproduces a column Shearer wrote in 1984 raising concern about food inflation and the growing monopoly of supermarket chains. It’s a fine piece of journalism – chatty but insightful – and reading it over 20 years later makes you wonder if, in the age of mass consumerism and shopping malls, most of us have lost sight of what it means to be a critical consumer.
Shearer admits that her success as a columnist was due “solely to unremitting effort and stubborn backroom slog”. There is ample evidence of this: once she unrolled 26 different brands of toilet rolls so she could count the number of sheets per roll. In a sustained campaign involving 12 columns over seven years, Shearer took on the big guys in the South African Optometric Association and lobbied a parliamentarian to have over-the-counter sales of cheap spectacles reintroduced. It’s a campaign that won her second prize in the Checkers Award and a trophy from the Consumer Council in 1985.
Shearer admits that there were times in her job that she was terrified but gives credit to the unflinching support over the years of her editors, who always made a clear distinction between the advertising and editorial departments of the newspaper and refused to be cowed by threats to pull advertising.
I enjoyed this book. Certainly the prices have changed over the years (in 1974 a bottle of mouthwash cost in the region of 40 cents), but the principles remain unchanged and the book still holds a number of valuable lessons for the consumer.