Where products are put to the test

How Consumer Union's laboratories douse, drop, tumble, and taste the goods we buy

Harv Ebel casually waves an artificial foot as he explains how The Consumers Union (CU) goes about testing the durability and comfort of running shoes.

The foot, he explains, was ditched for more refined testing methods involving a computer-connected, pressure-sensitive inner sole that slips inside a shoe.

The CU's laboratories, high-tech and utilitarian, represent ground zero of the organization's pledge to "test, inform, protect."

If that sounds like an insignia emblazoned on a policeman's shield, it's appropriate. Covering a beat shared by both industry and government regulators, the 64-year-old publisher of Consumer Reports magazine performs a vital function as the nation's foremost consumer cop.

"Consumers wouldn't [really] know what's in any of the big boxes stacked on the shelves of the retailers unless they had a source of information like Consumer Reports," says CU President Rhoda Kar-patkin, sitting in a plush office above the Yonkers, N.Y., laboratories. "And for the consumer to trust that sort of information, it has to be test-based, expert-based, and independent."

"They conduct the most extensive product tests whose results are made available to consumers," says Stephen Brobeck, executive director of The Consumer Federation of America. He notes that both government and industry conduct extensive tests too, but these are seldom released to the public. "Consumer Reports is a unique and essential organization that would have to be invented if it didn't exist," Mr. Brobeck says.

Just about any product inside your local shopping mall is fair game for evaluation. The organization has 160 anonymous, part-time shoppers in 142 US cities. They receive orders from editorial, technical, and research staff who select products by analyzing market-research data and recommendations from subscribers.

The magazine won't accept samples from manufacturers. Instead, it relies on a testing budget of $18 million per year. (After testing, the products are sold at a discount - a neat employee perk.)

Once the shopping blitzes are completed, the products are shipped to Yonkers, where 100 or so experts at the labs conduct quality and safety tests.

Well, sometimes.

Consumer Reports recently employed 114 children between the ages of 4 and 12 as testers. It was hardly a violation of child-labor laws. Supervised by judges, the kids got to try out a sleigh's worth of toys for the Christmas issue.

Yet the lab technicians may enjoy their work just as much. With pencils and pallets sharpened, food testers sit in cubicles next to a kitchen as they evaluate food samples for taste and texture.

Elsewhere, technicians smear identical amounts of peanut butter on plates awaiting dishwasher treatment. Photos of the dirty dishes are taped on the rows of dishwashers to help with the before/after test. A key goal: to achieve results that mirror the real world.

"Our testing protocols are the result of studying how industry does it, how other groups do it, what the state of the art is in testing this product, [and] the expertise involved," notes Ms. Karpatkin.

Manufacturers certainly take note of the testing. Last year, for instance, Miele dishwashers added a pre-rinse cycle to its European machines as it adapted them to the American market. It did so largely in response to the magazine's feedback, according to a company spokesman.

Karpatkin says Consumer Reports will sometimes test products by using them "in ways that won't be exactly the way the manufacturer said you should," noting, for example, that some people ignore warnings about not placing heaters next to draperies. "If it is likely that consumers will use something in that way, we have to test it for them," she says.

The science classroom at school was never as much fun as a CU lab. Stereo speakers sit in the center of a chamber that prevents sounds from echoing (voices inside the room sound oddly lifeless and disembodied).

Another room houses a machine that continuously opens and closes designer kitchen-cabinet doors for durability.

There's also a rain machine that tests the permeability of raincoats, and a mammoth tumble dryer-like contraption that tosses suitcases about to approximate the wear and tear of an airport-luggage-handling facility.

"An educational enterprise, that's the way I really see my job," says Mr. Ebel, a former physics professor at Columbia University. "Instead of having a class of 30, I have a class of 4 million people."

Actually, Ebel's estimate is a little off. Though Consumer Reports has a 4.2 million monthly circulation - making it the country's eighth top-selling publication - estimates by the MediaMark Research Inc. (MRI) place actual readership somewhere closer to 20 million, once copy sharing and library readership are factored in.

Consumer Reports survives on subscriptions; it accepts no advertising to avoid accusations of compromising its reporting with corporate interests. And corporations are forbidden to mention a good rating by the magazine in their advertising.

In addition, the online version of Consumer Reports, launched in 1997, has nearly 500,000 readers and continually jostles with The Wall Street Journal for the position of premier subscription Web site on the Internet.

The organization also gets its messages out through Consumer Reports Television, syndicated newspaper columns, and "Zillions," a magazine with a corresponding Web site (www.Zillions.org) for kids.

"Why is it that the government agencies in effect lag behind? The information coming out of Consumer Reports is much more accessible to the general public - it's much more widely read," says Kip Viscusi, a Harvard professor who specializes in product-risk analysis. He says government agencies tend to be more focused on regulating what companies produce than passing along information to the public.

Admitting that The Consumer Product Safety Commission's main priority is safety testing, Jane Hamilton, a spokesperson for that federal agency, is effusive about the willingness of Consumer Reports to publish details of government-mandated product recalls.

"It's a huge outlet for getting information out to the public and really helps us a lot," she says.

Consumers Reports' relationship to the government is many faceted and, at times, controversial (see story, right). The organization carries out the third tenet in its mission statement - to "protect" - by lobbying at various levels of government.

At times, there is cooperation between federal agencies and the CU. Other times, there is a tension. Karpatkin openly criticizes what she sees as declining safety standards at the National Transportation Highway Safety Administration. She also takes aim at government agencies that she feels are susceptible to lobbying by big business. "I think we're appreciated by many people in the government," Karpatkin says. "Many regulators want to do the right thing, and see us as an important citizen [force]."

CU has come a long way since 1936, when employees on strike at an outfit called Consumers Research decided to form their own organization.

"I think that over the decades we've created a way of thinking for consumers," Karpatkin concludes. "That they need to get information, that they have to be a little skeptical, that they need to use some of their own energy to use wise choices."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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