- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 16, 2003

CHICAGO, Jan. 16 (UPI) — Ever wish there was a Consumer Reports for auto repair shops?

Or animal hospitals?

Or roofers?

Checkbook magazine could be just the ticket.

The magazine is making its debut in Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Seattle Thursday after decades of evaluating businesses in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

Checkbook President Robert Krughoff said a Chicago version of the magazine has been in the works for a decade.

"The key thing is that there be people interested in information and who will use information before they act," Krughoff said during a promotional swing through the area. "I think Chicago will be very good on that front. There's a fairly high penetration of Consumer Reports subscribers here. We're sort of a Consumer Reports for local services."

Krughoff was the director of research and evaluation planning in the office of the secretary for the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare. The idea for Checkbook magazine was born out of that experience.

"We evaluated everything from Head Start to neighborhood health centers to rehabilitation programs," he said. "At the same time, one day, I was driving away from a car repair shop where I had been at least three times prior to that for the same repair. Within a block, I realized I'd be back again.

"I thought, 'There should be a Consumer Reports for local services.'"

The Washington version of the magazine hit the streets in 1976, followed a few years later by the San Francisco edition. The magazines accept no advertising and are funded solely by subscriptions and extra contributions from subscribers, who also get access to the publications' Web site, checkbook.org. The magazine is published twice annually, with a newsstand price of $10. Subscriptions are $30 for two years.

The first Chicago issue compares auto repair shops, veterinarians, cellular phone services, tree care services, area hospitals and health management organizations. It also offers advice on buying a new car.

"Things are neither better nor worse (in Chicago) than elsewhere in the country," Krughoff said. "There are a lot of people who are getting inferior service but there are plenty of firms that give very high quality service.

"There are big differences in quality from firm to firm, big differences in price from firm to firm and the best news for consumers, in most services we look at … there's no relationship between what you pay and what you get.

"You can choose a low-price firm and still get very high quality service. We saw that with auto repair shops. The lowest price group of shops was about 10 percent more likely to do work properly than the higher priced shops — just the opposite from what everyone would say."

The magazine gathers its data through surveys, the Better Business Bureau, state attorneys general offices and other public records. For its telephone samples, it uses the Consumer Reports' mailing list.

"We're not associated with Consumers Union but they let us use their mailing list," Krughoff said.

Checkbook has a staff of 35 in Washington but plans to hire part-time "shoppers" for its coming evaluation of grocery stores.

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