- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Tiny red, black and white blobs are Consumer Reports‘ trademark, five ratings from “Excellent” to “Poor” plus a cherished red check — “Recommended” — that may determine the success or failure of some of America’s best-known consumer products.

On all the automobiles, electronics, sewing machines, shoes, dishwashers and other items tested for safety, reliability and performance, the all-black circle is the one manufacturers most dread to see. The all-red blob is “Excellent”; an empty blob is merely “Good.”

In its 72nd year, the nonprofit Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports and a number of lesser-known publications, stakes its reputation on those diligently earned circles, and the organization’s work couldn’t be more timely, given the current economic downturn.

While the rest of the country downsizes, Consumer Reports is “upsizing” in just about every way and seems about recession-proof. It claims to have the largest paid publication subscription Web site (www.consumer reports.org) in the world, with more than 3 million subscribers, a number that recently has increased by an average of 80,000 a month. Newsstand sales have doubled in the past five years, and an estimated 17 million people are said to see each issue of the combined magazine and Web site.

In addition to full-time staff there are also part-time staff members used for highly skilled sensory testing, it relies on an annual survey soliciting subscriber experiences with hundreds of product makes and models.

In the meantime, it has successfully fended off — not lost — all lawsuits from companies for low ratings and only recently came a cropper when it hired an outside lab to test child car seats. When that lab’s conclusions on a safety matter were found to be wrong, the company promptly issued apologies and an explanation of how it had happened to err.

Reviews of new products or new models high in demand might appear first on the Web, as would warnings such as a recent one issued by the organization in conjunction with the Consumer Federation of America disagreeing with the Food and Drug Administration’s earlier report that food and beverage containers made of bisphenol A (BPA) are safe.

So-called secret shoppers are hired to spend millions annually buying items at retail prices for use in CU’s testing and rating facilities. Several dozen coffee makers undergoing examination cost anywhere from $14.95 to $200, for example, while big-screen high-definition TVs might cost as much as $4,000. Tested items later are auctioned off to employees, who number upward of 600 and growing - more than 300 for Consumer Reports alone, including 150 engineers.

Advertisers and manufacturers are kept at arm’s length. The magazine, which provides the bulk of Consumer Union’s income, has no commercial ads beyond those plugging the organization’s own findings.

“We are out there to inform, protect and help the consumer make intelligent buying decisions,” says Maxine Siegel, a registered dietitian who is in charge of sensory testing, one of 50 laboratories that evaluate about 3,000 items each year at the National Testing and Research Center in Yonkers, N.Y., north of New York City.

Cars are put through their paces on a specially built track on 327 acres 21/2 hours away in East Haddam, Conn., where new models are tested exhaustively in sessions that can take months to conclude. The April auto issue - one of Consumer Reports’ most popular - comes out in March to coincide with what the magazine says is a popular time for consumers to shop for new cars. December’s issue - on newsstands in November - focuses on electronics ahead of the gift-giving season.

CU’s headquarters is an unimposing four-story beige building in suburban Yonkers. The first stop is a look at one of the most dramatic enclosures: a large $2.5 million echo-free anechoic chamber whose walls are made of wedge-shaped fiberglass protrusions. It’s used for testing electronic equipment such as speakers and cordless phones.

“Here is dead silence. No outside noise,” notes James Langehennig, manager of technical services, adding that “as long as [companies] keep making [new models], we will keep testing.” Testers must pass hearing tests given once a year because, as he says, “the best listening device is the human ear.”

A bald mannequin named Kemar just outside the chamber is equipped with differently sized ears for different types of headphones that undergo review in the Tech Electronics division, where the typical testing cycle is six weeks. Other full-size, clothed mannequins, set against a flowery backdrop, can be found in a lab that measures the ability of video cameras to accurately portray orange, aqua and green hues - among the most optically challenging colors and patterns for electronic devices. Camcorders are rated twice yearly.

In the home-improvement division, engineer Larry Ciufo puts test swatches of fabric into a colorimeter that can measure just how clean each square on a strip gets after a round in a washing machine. Common stains such as wine, blood, carbon black, body oil and cocoa are tested against a plain white square. Fabric also is tested to see how easily fibers are dislodged in an aggressive washing cycle.

“You work on something different all the time, and you learn a lot” is how Mr. Ciufo explains the attraction of such a job. “And you get the satisfaction of people coming up to you to say how glad they are such-and-such report came out.”

Carolyn Clifford-Ferrara, an engineer who heads Consumer Reports’ Product Safety and Health Operations, says an overall evaluation of fitness equipment can’t predict how many calories the average person will burn off, but “whether you get a good workout and at what level.” Her team looks at ease of use and comfort as well as other factors. “We can and do test to national standards, and we have our own. … We put the most important information in the magazine, and extras go online,” the 17-year employee says.

The 49 electric coffee makers and coffee grinders sitting on tables in yet another windowless room are overseen by program manager Bob Karpel for a review of such simple but crucial elements as ease of opening the parts intended for the water and coffee grounds and ready access for left-handed people as well as more complex matters of performance.

The sensory lab tests just about everything a machine can’t determine, Ms. Siegel says. Sensory panelists judge a brew’s sweetness, acidity, aroma, mouth-feel and other matters of taste.

The best coffee makers, Mr. Karpel says, are not always the most expensive, but those that have consistent water temperatures between 195 and 204 degrees, ideal for getting the most flavor out of the coffee.

Ms. Siegel adds, “We don’t look at the number of stitches per inch and quality of work done by a sewing machine. We look at how easy it is to make that buttonhole,” distinguishing between what scientists and engineers do and what her panels are asked to do. With sewing-machine testing, panelists with and without sewing experience do blind testing.

When evaluating the quality of foods in the giant kitchen lab, “We take everything out of its original packaging and put it into cups labeled with a three-digit code,” she says. Evaluators sit in individual booths with “little garage door windows where samples are passed through.”

Her division tries to keep up with new products, especially an item that is timely or related to consumer health and safety.

“We’ve tested new yogurts with live culture, but we also have an analytical lab to look at content,” she says.

Market researchers decide which models are tested, but it’s up to the skilled testers to use their eyes and ears and taste buds as well as a bevy of sensitive and sophisticated instruments for best results.

“They keep their personal preferences out of it. We want them to tell us, for example, how sweet or sour something is, and then afterward we tell them what it was,” she says.

The goal, she says, is to determine how each product differs from other brands and how distinctive its quality is.

Taking a trained tester out to dinner after work is an unusual experience, she says.

“They are very sensitive. They smell the food first, so accustomed are they to taking food apart and thinking about it.”

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