John Ruskin? J. A. Richards? The Pure Food Store? White Star Company? Percy D. Hagan? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: It is always possible to manufacture an item using inferior materials and sell it at a cheaper price than a quality item. The buyer who is foolishly guided by price alone becomes the lawful prey of the seller. The famous English art critic John Ruskin has received credit for eloquently expressing this point. Oddly, I have never seen a proper citation supporting the attribution to Ruskin. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the February 1901 issue of “Profitable Advertising: The Advertiser’s Trade Journal”. A correspondent named J. A. Richards of New York sent a letter of disagreement to the journal editor who had advocated the display of prices within advertisements. Richards believed that a focus on prices was undesirable for the sellers of quality goods. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
While you talk about the quality of your wares, you have your cheaper competitor where he cannot touch you. The breach between you is longer than his arm. When you begin to talk about prices, you are absolutely at his mercy. There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey. This is the doctrine of commercial foreordination, against which it is useless to contend.
Based on current evidence QI tentatively credits J. A. Richards with the saying in the bold text above. Yet, it remains possible that Richards was repeating a formulation that was already in circulation.
John Ruskin died in January 1900. Numerous researchers have been unable to find this expression in his writings. He received credit by October 1926, but the long delay meant that the linkage was very weak.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.