31 JANUARY 1970, Page 10


Hard sell


'I bought a book on how to resist salesmen', confided the scatty blonde on the Rowan and Martin show; adding, with split-second timing, `The guy sold it me for 45 dollars.' However, this guy was not using thoroughly modern methods. He would have been much more with it if his victim had received the book out of the blue and had then been bombarded with persuasive or threatening letters demanding payment. He might have been on to an even bigger kill if blondie had actually taken out a subscription to a book club, only to find that well after this had run out or been cancelled the books con- tinued to come. And he would have been adding an alluring twist to these techniques had he cajoled her into writing off for a 'free prize', which then arrived accompanied by the unsolicited book or books he actually wanted to flog.

Reputable firms have been quick to point out that these phenomena can arise from stupidity of staff — and even more of com- puters — rather than from cupidity of sales policy. But whatever the origins, the effects on the unfortunate consumer are the same: inconvenience, bewilderment, anxiety, rage and, in a high proportion of instances, the lame acceptance of a financial obligation which the law would not usually uphold. The law, however, is neither well under- stood nor satisfactorily framed — which is why I argued in this column back in the summer for changes that would allow people to treat as their own any unsolicited mer- chandise they received and would make it an offence to demand payment, still more to threaten legal proceedings, in respect of merchandise which the sender must have known was unsolicited. These unwarranted threats are perhaps the most disquieting aspect of inertia selling, since they are tantamount in effect to blackmail, and are sometimes indeed arguably such.

Those who campaign for legislation to suppress particular mischiefs are rarely rewarded with rapid success. Neither the anti-slavery movement nor the anti-corn law league — to name the two most super- latively organised and decisively successful of British pressure groups — overcame the forces of mammon in a day. Viewing the annual massacre of the innocents in Parlia- ment which results from our idiotic pro- cedure of not allowing Bills to be carried forward from one session to another, it is hard to resist the conclusion that, if politics is the art of the possible, then private mem-

bers' legislation is (nine times out of ten) the art of the improbable. Will Mr Arthur Davidson's Inertia Selling Bill, which is the progeny of the Consumers' Association and the Consumer Council and draws its spon- sors from all three parties, prove to be one of the exceptions? Let us pray; for it is published and due to be presented this week, and it could effectively bring to a full stop some of the most offensive practices of contemporary salesmanship.

By a side-blow, so to speak, it would also put paid to a nasty little get-rich-quick scheme which plays upon the credulity of (particularly) small businessmen and their accounts departments. The shark sends out, say, a thousand letters to businesses in the district, saying 'Appended is your entry in the East Loamshire directory. Please let me know by return if there are any corrections to be made in it'. Lots and lots of firms do nothing, assuming either that this is a con- tinuation of something arranged long ago, or that it is free, gratis and for nothing that they will enjoy the exquisite pleasure of seeing their own names in print. Some time after, they receive a hefty bill. Not a few write cheques without thought or murmur. Others kick themselves for not asking ques- tions earlier but, feeling foolish, also pay up. Still more weakly hand over the cash when the dunning letters start to arrive. Even if only 50 per cent are caught it is money for jam, since no genuine directory is ever produced. All the trickster does is to compile one or two mock-ups of the entries and keep them in the office to make things look legal until the time comes to decamp to the next county and the next directory. Quite a swindle, this 'unsolicited service', and apparently impossible to knock down under the present law. One more reason for wishing the Inertia Selling Bill welL But fancy finding a piece of specifically con- sumer legislation protecting small traders from even smaller traders. Of course, we are all consumers now. But whatever next? The triumphant abolitionists sponsoring a Redundant Hangmen (Pensions) Bill?