All of us are consumers, from cradle to grave, to be more precise, from the womb to grave or cremation. In a sense, the history of the consumer is the history of mankind. Consumers are the largest economic group in any country. They are the central point of all of our economic activities. But the very same consumers ate the most voiceless group also. The nature of consumer in terms of needs, consumption patterns, and problems has been changing and evolving along with the social and economic development in the course of history.
The history of the consumer in the sense of one who consumes anything may be said to have started with the history of mankind. In pre-historic times, humans gathered food and other necessities from nature directly. As years passed they started producing/ preparing their food and other articles from naturally available materials. Thus production was for self-consumption and for immediate dependents. The man was both a producer and a consumer at one and at the same time. Therefore, there were no problems related to the sale and purchase of goods. With the passage of time, the needs of men and women increased and became varied. What they produced also left a surplus. Also, they needed to stay in one place to look after their produce. Gradually individuals realized that they were not capable of producing on their own everything they needed. So they began socializing and started mutual dependence. This led to group living which resulted in the sharing of responsibilities with others and exchanging individual products with that of others, to fulfill varied needs. Thus, the system of Barter is the exchange of goods for goods. With time there arose the need to establish the equivalence of goods according to their value.
The Industrial Revolution which started in England in the late 18th century and spread to Western Europe in the early I9th century brought about unprecedented changes in the lifestyle of people. The fast pace of progress in science and technology and the consequent mechanization of production led to mass production of goods.
This, in turn, required marketing of goods that have been produced and drew a clear line of distinction between the producer and consumer. Barter gradually gave way to money as a medium of exchange. Coins and paper currency came to be used for the purchase of goods and hiring services. The emergence of standards for goods and Weights and Measures or the sale of goods was logical outcomes in the process. Issues regarding the choice of goods, availability of essential items, profit-making, etc. became important soon after industrialization also brought in its wake a number of effects that completely changed the face of the market and the consumer environment. The markets offered a huge variety of goods for consumers to have their choice. At the same time, consumers were subjected to all kinds of selling pressures and persuasive methods of sales promotion by competing producers and sellers. The modern-day concept of the consumer as buyer and user of goods from the market may thus be said to have emerged from industrialization. This has also given rise to what is called Consumerism.
The term consumerism refers to the hidden range of activities of government, business, and independent organizations that are designed to protect individuals from policies that infringe upon their rights as consumers. Since the introduction of modern technology and growth or large scale enterprises, mass production and distribution of goods and services have contributed to making business activities more competitive and highly complex. Hence, their regulation and control have increasingly become more important. The following factors may be said to have contributed to the growth of consumerism:
Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, multiple varieties of goods are produced and marketed today. An average consumer is exposed to varieties of manufactured goods in the market place. To a certain extent, the sales promotion techniques adopted by sellers influence the buyer's decisions. Not only in respect of goods, but today's consumer is increasingly dependent also on common utility services like electricity and water supply, transport, communication, banking, insurance, hospitals, etc. Those who are producers also need services both for their private use as well as for production purposes. Similarly, providers of services depend on producers to have the means necessary for providing services. For example, producers of trucks and buses require electric power, communication, system, water supply, etc. On the other hand, providers of transport services require buses, trucks, cars, etc. which are manufactured by producers.
In a way, today's consumer combines the role of the producer as well as the consumer and may be called a "Prosumer". A doctor renders medical service to a restaurant owner but for his refreshments, he becomes a consumer in that very restaurant. A textile shop keeper sells cloth but is also a consumer of other goods and services. Thus, today most people are prosumers i.e., producer and consumer rolled into one. All professionals are service givers and consumers too.
As most of us are both consumers and professional service providers, a dichotomy prevails in us. As consumers, our expectations from the sellers of goods and professionals are different from our position as sellers or service givers in relation to buying consumers. It is largely because of lack of awareness of this dichotomy that we often alienate ourselves from the very environment which should give us security and protect us from exploitation. We expect the marketer to be accountable without subjecting our own role as a service or good provider to scrutiny. Unless we become aware that the concept of the pure consumer is of limited validity, it may be difficult to orient ourselves towards efficiency and quality in goods and services.