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Letter to the editor

Dear Editor: Regarding Jennifer Mark's column, "Thanks for Nothing" (HTT, May 31) I would suggest there is a more fundamental change in America which is driving quality downward — knowledge/category literacy.

I've observed that Americans generally know very little about what quality may even mean in most textile products, particularly when the variances in quality by product are not apparent based on casual observation. Mass retailers, and their large suppliers, play on this knowledge vacuum to great effect by competing in terms consumers can understand — price, color, availability. Why not opt for the lower price when you literally don't know the difference?

I've experienced more than one meeting with a catalog buyer who is completely unprepared to make a decision based on any kind of understanding of quality issues.

Theoretically there is more knowledge "available" with which to make educated purchasing decisions (via Web sites, consumer journals, etc) but the practical reality is that consumers have less time in their hectic schedules to absorb the additional information (if it is available) with which to make those decisions. Add to that a consumer value hierarchy which generally considers textiles a non-exciting backwater commodity (they don't review threadcounts in new sheets in BusinessWeek like they do new iPods, cellphones, etc.) and you end up on the very low scale of literacy when speaking of the general public.

People buy new towels and sheets when the old ones wear out, but they buy new cars, cell phones and other gadgets to experience the latest upgrades even if what they have works fine — and these are upgrades, that they have been educated about and prepared for via huge mass marketing campaigns.

In addition, our society teaches us, and has now for many decades, that a lower price is inherently better. If the price of a product does go up, it darn well better have more options to overcompensate for the increase — more CD slots, better leather, better color choices, more speed, etc. In the absence of product innovation which can be grasped by the consumer (for example, Teflon), price becomes the fulcrum for choice motivation.

You intimate that consumers aren't stupid — they have a general if fuzzy feel for a purchase being too cheap (price) and too poor (quality). I would agree, and I think the brands and suppliers who are able to articulate to consumers why their products are better, and prove it via a steady stream of continuously satisfied buyers who literally learn the product is better by using it, will prosper in the end.

Now that we are walking in the desert with no map, who will lead us out?

Ken Kline, CEO, Victorian Heart Company, Inc., Branson, Mo.

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