By GUNTHER STEIN THERE is a school of thought which holds that a high place among documents admitting to the world in general the free enterprise system of the United States should be reserved for that most alluring of American great books, the Sears Roebuck Catalogue. The mail order sales catalogue of Sears Roebuck and Company in Chicago, the world's greatest retail concern, is the traditional shelf- neighbour of the Bible in American farm and small-town homes. "The book," as many God-fearing Americans have long been calling it without thought of sacrilege, is sent gratis, twice a year, to some seven million customers, and has a greater annual circulation than any other volume in the United States. More impressive than ever with its many thousands of multi-colour and black-and-white pic- tures on 1,200 pages of high-quality paper, the catalogue weighs five pounds. It lists over too,000 items, comprising almost the entire array of goods American industry produces for the consumer—from every conceivable item of men's, women's and children's wear, furniture, kitchen equipment, household appliances, garden tools and seeds to "packaged bathrooms" and sound-cinema sets ; from vitamins, cosmetics, sports goods and outboard motors to toys, musical instruments and electric power units ; from bird-houses, electric chimes and Bibles to tombstones in granite, marble or bronze ; from items costing the equivalent of a few pennies like needles and paper- clips to one-and-a-half-carat diamond rings priced at £425 a,piece. The tempting book offers easy payment terms up to eighteen months against a ten per cent, down-payment, and shipment of 'almost every order within twentylkour hours.
The mail order business is an American institution of scarcely realised importance and significance. The sales of Sears Roebuck alone are now £525 million a year, an amount equivalent to the United States' combined annual exports to the United Kingdom, France and Germany ; and those of Sears Roebuck's competitor, Montgomery Ward and Company, £310 million a year, are equal in value to the country's annual world exports of all grains and grain products. At least every third American family gets a good part of its non-food supplies by means of leisurely "armchair shopping" from a mail order catalogue, and the orders handled every day in the largest of Sears Roebuck's several mail order centres, at Chicago, average one hundred thousand. But "the book" represents a value to the American free enterprise system that goes far beyond the actual sales it promotes. More than the fleeting advertisements of the magazines, this compact reference volume, offering fulfilment of every possible material wish-dream, brings into American homes the soothing hope of potential opulence—and, with it, confidence in the system that holds out that hope even to the poorest who can afford little indeed of the proffered bounty.
But can you turn the peoples of Europe and Asia into satisfied day-dream shoppers of the American system by making them gasp at the wealth depicted in mail order catalogues ? The answer, apparently, is no. For nothing, in fact, is as unsuited to American free enterprise publicity abroad as the Sears Roebuck book. Even domestic American magazines, which like to write up and glorify business success of any kind, are shy of the mail order theme ; probably not so much because firms like Sears Roebuck need not advertise in magazines, as for the weightier reason that those retail giants are anathema to the many millions of Americans in inde- pendent small and medium businesses who are having a bard time trying to survive in a free enterprise economy which, naturally, must allow billion-dollar concerns to compete with them on unequal terms. It is no longer the "country store" alone which Sears Roebuck challenges with its powerful competition. When the steady progress of modern transportation brought the farm and the small town into closer contact with the larger shopping. centres and their tempting show windows, threatening to restrict the further expansion of the old rural mail order business, the great concern turned to direct rivalry with the town and city shops. In recent years, it built up a nation-wide chain of 621 large retail establishments and showrooms, where readers of "the book" who want to examine the goods they are going to buy can actually see and compare them with the wares of other shops. Many an American shopkeeper and tradi- tional believer in the free enterprise system has had to pay the price by being forced out of business. Good times, in recent years, may have allowed some of the victims to make a comeback in another field of small, independent enterprise, and the number of small businesses has actually never been so large in the United States as it is now ; but bad times, which everybody feels must recur periodically, would probably make the greatly increased power of the giants even more dangerous than it proved in the past.
Those are matters most American newspapers and magazines do not like to discuss even at home ; and they are evidently even less suited for foreign consumption, at a time when it is only natural for the United States, in its world struggle over ideologies, to stress the strong, rather than the weak, points of the American free enter- prise system. Nor, it seems, was it considered wise for American publicity abroad to emphasise the picture of nation-wide opulence that is so easily conjured up by a book like the Sears Roebuck cata- logue. For one thing, it might put into the minds of Europeans and Asiatics who, on the whole, suffered so much more from the war than Americans, the idea that the United States is doing less than it would be able to do to allay the continuing deprivations of its war-time allies. For another, those in the outside world who know America personally or follow the facts of its economic life might well prove that, even now, the abundance of the good things of life everywhere in the United States is more apparent than real. A recent study of the U.S. Department of Labour, The City Worker's Family Budget, put things into proper perspective and caused some uneasy surprises to a good many superficial observers in the United States. The study calculates the cost of a "modest but adequate standard of living," and puts it at about LSoo a year for a family of two adults and two children, which is 25 per cent, more than the average wage of a fully employed industrial worker, even during the present boom period. And the study specifies in great detail the commodities a thrifty and cleverly-budgeting family would be able to buy on that ideal income basis which, by the way, is also somewhat above that of the average farmer.
These, then, are the facts that make the Sears Roebuck catalogue appear to be more of a dream-book for the average American family than a reliable indication of its normal supply of the goods of American industry : the father of the family could afford a new overcoat or raincoat only every three years and a woollen suit
every sixteen months ; the mother, some kind of overcoat every two years, a suit every nine years, a woollen dress every five-and-a-halt years, although she would be able to buy five cheap cotton or
artificial silk dresses a year ; the son could get a new coat only every four years, a woollen suit every twenty-seven months, but four shirts a year ; and the daughter, a cheap coat every eight months, a sweater every sixteen months, a blouse each year and a skirt every second year. The family's sparse, low-quality furniture, seven pieces for the living room, seven pieces in all for the bedrooms and eight for the kitchen, would have to last an average of about seventeen years, lest the budget be exceeded. A floor-mop would have to serve for two-and-a-half years, an ironing-board for ten, a clock for eight, the only carpet for sixteen years. Five towels, two sheets and two pillowcases would be all the bed linen the family could afford to buy each year ; and so it goes on through item after item of the modest specimen budget for the ideal worker's family with a twenty-five per cent. above-average wage. If the American worker's family spent on its basic needs of food, shelter, education, personal and medical care all that it costs to maintain a "modest but adequate standard of living," it would have left only one-fifth of that ideal £800 income for the purchase of clothing and furniture, household appliances and luxuries such as the Sears Roebuck catalogue offers ; and a good deal of such purchases at present are actually made to the detriment of the more basic needs of family well-being. This is the sort of consider- ation which will probably keep "the book" for Americans to read, only in their own homes, where its full limitations are understood. ,