Product reviews: What to read, when to buy

Product reviews are a first step, but there are several others to take.

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    Shoppers pass by a discounted turkey fryer on Black Friday in 2006 at The Mall in Columbia in Columbia, Md. John Drengenberg, the consumer safety director at the Underwriters Laboratories, a product safety testing organization, says the product-testing group doesn't recommend them because the fryers present numerous safety hazards and there have been increasing reports of fires related to them. Product reviews are a good first step to research consumer purchases.
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Wendy writes in:

I know that you have touched on this a bit in the past, but I would love to see an article specifically addressing how you research an items technology, durability, and expected lifespan when making your purchasing decisions.

I have two categories of interest:
- rarely reviewed items. Ex: two different motion sensor light switches that only lasted 2 years each?
- changing technology, such as where they constantly come out with new models and it is difficult to do lifespan reviews. Ex: our expensive TV only lasted 4 years, then filters went bad and the pictures appear yellow?

Finding trustworthy reviews of specific items can be pretty hard, even today with the huge amount of information available on the internet. I use a lot of different avenues to make up my mind about specific purchases. Here’s what I do when researching anything.

First, I turn to Consumer Reports. They’re my first line of defense for any consumer product, from televisions and dishwashers to soap and razors. I often mark their highest rated products and their “best buy” products for future purchase possibilities, particularly on disposable and replaceable items. It’s always my first stop when researching something I’m considering buying.

If I can’t find a review of the specific product or if it hasn’t been around long enough to give long-term data, I look at the brand. Does this company have a history of producing high-quality and reliable products? Or do they make things that break frequently and need replacement quickly?

Similarly, I want to know about their customer service. If a company has a reputation for strong customer service – like Apple, for example – I feel more confident about purchasing a product from that company. If the product turns out to be faulty, a company with good service is much more likely to take care of you than a company with poor service.

If I can’t find such information about a company, I don’t buy the product. This is especially true as purchases grow more expensive. If I can’t find any information about the company producing the item and the item costs more than a few bucks (or I’m going to be relying on this item in any way), I won’t buy the item. I have had too many bad experiences with no-name items that, if I’m going to be investing any significant money, I need to have some information about who is making it and what their reputation is.

I do use Google searching and Amazon reviews, but I put less trust in them than I do on other sources. I’ll look up items and see what the peer reviews say, but I do recognize that sometimes those peer reviews are bought and paid for by the company (”Employee X, you have a couple hours to burn, go review our stuff well on Amazon”) and sometimes the negative reviews are competitors trying to do a hatchet job.

On any significant purchase, I ask around my social network. I’ll put out an email to some of my closest friends stating that I’m looking for some type of item or service and I’m wondering if they have any comments or suggestions. Almost everything I get back in this regard is golden – it’s almost always honest, quality stuff.

I also pay it forward – whenever I have a bad experience or an exceptional experience, I find ways to share that experience widely with others. I’ll put up reviews in various places or even mention them on The Simple Dollar.

These techniques almost always add up to enough information for any purchasing decision I need to make.

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