NEAL CONAN, moderator:
Dit is TALK OF THE NATION. Ik ben Neal Conan in Washington.
The current controversy surrounding Apple's new iPhone raises some interesting questions about where to get reliable advice not only on electronics, but also on cars, washing machines, refrigerators, flat screens and thousands of other products. In the case of the iPhone 4, Apple argued that reception wasn't so bad that AT&T could be the culprit; maybe it was a software bug — until a Consumer Reports test changed things.
Where can you get product advice? Your mother, your social network, your neighbors? Do you watch the tirades and raves on the internet? Today we review the reviewers. Why do you trust? Who do you rely on for product reviews and why? 800-989-8255. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the discussion on our website. Find that on npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, Roman Polanski will not be forced to return to California. We have read from several responses and would like to hear from you. You can now send emails. The address is email@example.com.
But first, more about Consumer Reports magazine, which made headlines this week when it decided not to give the iPhone 4 the recommended rating. Kim Klemen, editor-in-chief of Consumer Reports, emerges from her studio in Yonkers, New York. And nice that you are part of TALK OF THE NATION today.
Ms. KIM KLEMEN (Consumer Reports): I'm glad to be here.
CONAN: And the story was reported as retracted. As I understand it, that is not quite correct.
Ms. KLEMEN: No, it's not a retraction at all. We just finished testing the iPhone 4. We gave it excellent ratings for display and navigation, as well as web browsing, multimedia, and battery life. It is the smartphone with the highest rating in our review. During our test, however, we read and heard consumer complaints about poor reception and dropped calls. So we imitated that. We have been able to reproduce this in our laboratories.
And we've decided that, according to our testing methodology, which we use on every other phone, this phone performs great. We couldn't tell people - we couldn't recommend it because we think Apple should fix this problem. That is not the case; people shouldn't have to use duct tape or masking tape or buy a $29 bumper to fix it. Apple needs to fix the problem. So we wait for that and maybe then recommend it to others.
CONAN: You could understand the confusion though. The first test report shows that the iPhone 4 even exceeds the high expectations at first glance. Then, after testing is complete: why Consumer Reports can't recommend the iPhone 4. So it was - you understand why people were confused.
Ms. KLEMEN: You could, but let me just say that in our early reviews -- and you know, one of the things all reviewers, especially Consumer Reports, try to do is tell you what we know when we know it. But we've been very careful with all our first looks and can say that this is just a first look and we're not done testing yet. So we try to be very careful.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Is this somehow a product of the internet? When there was only the magazine, you could wait for the results to come out and then publish it. Well, no one wants to wait for the monthly magazine anymore.
Ms. KLEMEN: Yes, that's right. We've expanded our testing tremendously to the point where we're testing a lot more products than ever before because there's a lot more out there and people want to know more about them. And we're trying to speed up our testing so we can get results sooner. You are right, we no longer have a monthly magazine schedule.
CONAN: And I was wondering if you could tell us about your process. One of the reasons so many rely on consumer reports is that they don't advertise, so it's not worth saying someone is good and someone else isn't. But so are your testing methods. First, you don't wait for the company to send you a product. You go out and buy it.
Ms KLEMEN: That is exactly right. Let me tell you about consumer reports. We are 74 years old. Next year we will celebrate our 75th anniversary. Not me personally, but the organization.
CONAN: Eventually you will.
Ms. KLEMEN: And from the beginning our only component was the consumer. We don't like manufacturers. We don't like manufacturers. Basically, we are there to tell consumers what the best and cheapest product is and what to stay away from. We live almost exclusively on subscriptions. Our magazine subscription costs $26. This is more expensive than many other magazines out there. Also our web subscription. But that's because that's how we get our money to run our tests and release our products.
Every year we test more than 3,000 different products. We spend millions of dollars buying these products off the shelves and testing them. We test about another 80 or so vehicles that we purchase. That's another two and a half million dollars. We have over 50 testing labs right here at our headquarters in Yonkers. We have another 800 acre test track in Connecticut. So we pride ourselves on being independent and we have to be independent, you know, because of what we do.
When people see an ad for a manufacturer on our sites, they might think, "Hmm, is this product being rated as it is because it was paid for - you know, the manufacturer paid for an ad?" And our independence is absolutely our credibility and that's why we do what we do the way we do it.
CONAN: Do you take input from subscribers, from consumers? Do you take into account their reviews or requests?
Ms. KLEMEN: Oh, absolutely. What do you want us to test and what are your tips, we know in every issue and online. Interestingly, Consumer Reports can test all features and aspects of a product, with the exception of sometimes durability or how the product performs over extended use. For this we really rely on user reviews and comments - other comments from our readers. We had the event that we gave this blender the highest mark. And when people used it for several months, did the motor behave strangely or…
Ms. KLEMEN: ...you know, it doesn't work for me anymore. We take these comments into account and will return as we are unable to test durability. We cannot keep refrigerators in our laboratory for 15 years. You know, after such a period, the results don't matter anymore. That is why we like to hear how things are developing locally. This is exactly what happened with the iPhone 4.
CONAN: What do you do with all that stuff after you test it?
Ms. KLEMEN: Oh, that's the biggest benefit of working at Consumer Reports and Consumers Union. We have a big auction and the prices are marked half price. And you can easily bid on products. That's why we're running this great auction for employees, and it's a way to recoup some of the money we pay for the product, but also an opportunity for employees to get products cheaper. We never sell our products with security vulnerabilities or anything like that. But everything else can be bought fairly cheaply.
CONAN: Are you going to auction it off after you wreck the Lexus?
CONAN: Well, thanks anyway. I wonder if the criticism of Apple points to the challenge of expanding and maintaining a good reputation outside the magazine?
Mrs. KLEMEN: You know, I'm trying to find a way to answer that. I mean...
CONAN: Given your experience, would you have waited a bit longer to share those initial reviews?
Mrs. KLEMEN: We try to serve our readers. We try to serve customers. And you know, we had our test results, and we also had this information about a bug, and we felt it was important to get that information out to people who might be making their smartphone choices right now. Yeah, you know, this thing technically works well for all these many measures. But people complain about this problem. We have found this issue and believe that this company should fix it. We believe this is information worth getting into the hands of consumers when they can get it.
CONAN: Kim Klemen, thank you for your time today. Drive carefully in this Lexus.
Ms. KLEMEN: I have an agreement.
CONAN: Okay. Kim Klemen, editor-in-chief of Consumer Reports magazine, joined us today from her studio in Yonkers.
There are many places that offer product reviews online and offline, but most don't do testing like Consumer Reports does. Christine Frietchen, editor-in-chief of Consumersearch.com, joins us now to discuss how it could be a savvy consumer of Consumer Reviews, a site that analyzes product reviews from buyers and professional reviewers alike. She joins us today from our New York office. Nice that you are part of TALK OF THE NATION today.
Ms. CHRISTINE FRIETCHEN (editor-in-chief, Consumersearch.com): Nice to be here.
CONAN: And would you consider consumer reports to be the gold standard here?
Mrs. FRIETCHEN: Absolutely for many product areas. I mean, how many people really have the ability to buy 40 washing machines and test them all on the exact same load of laundry?
I couldn't fit more than one in my apartment, which is why there's a discrepancy between user reviews and big, big review bodies like Consumer Reports. They have the resources to make these kind of comparisons on these really big items.
CONAN: They also have a brand identity and work hard to maintain their integrity. But are brand names an indication of reliability?
Ms. FRIETCHEN: Sometimes. Many magazines conduct brand reliability surveys, but often you don't really know who the manufacturer behind the brand is.
Ms. FRIETCHEN: For example, many people think that Sears makes a wide variety of Kenmore products. Kenmore actually does almost nothing.
CONAN: Who makes these products?
Mrs. FRIETCHEN: They are all made by different manufacturers. Whirlpool makes a few. LG makes a few. It depends on the product.
CONAN: So that's just the Sears brand being foisted on someone else – they outsource the production.
Ms. FRIETCHEN: Yes, and that is also the case with many of these white label products. You know, Best Buy has a house brand. Wal-Mart has a house brand. In fact, someone else is behind it.
CONAN: And so you have to research things like this before saying that the Kenmore products, after hundreds of years of reliability with Sears, are pretty good.
Ms. FRIETCHEN: Yes, that is absolutely true. I mean like anything there is production pressure and now so much is made in Asia. The thing is, you just can't tell from the name.
CONAN: Then there are new types of review sites that are all popping up on the web and aggregating consumer reviews.
Ms. FRIETCHEN: Right. Well, Amazon is probably the biggest example. I mean, people almost think of Amazon.com as a review site. It is actually a shopping site. But the two roles are really mixed because they have so much content related to user reviews.
But Consumersearch.com, my company, wants to bridge the gap between the short-term tests that experts like Consumer Reports, C-NET and PC Magazine conduct and the rich, rich, rich history of user reviews that you can find up close, see Amazon.com and other websites.
CONAN: Well, we're going to listen to the reviews from the reviewers, and if you want to comment, where do you go for advice on different types of products? 800-989-8255. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the discussion on our website. This is on npr.org. Click TALK OF THE NATION.
Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's NPR News' TALK OF THE NATION.
(sound clip of music)
CONAN: Dit is TALK OF THE NATION. Ik ben Neal Conan in Washington.
The last time you bought a new iPod or dishwasher, you probably got advice from someone, a friend, a blog, a magazine or your mother. Today we give you the opportunity to rate the reviewers. Maybe you went online to check.
Tell us who you trust for product reviews and why: 800-989-8255. Email us at email@example.com. You can also join the discussion on our website at npr.org. Click TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guest is Christine Frietchen, editor-in-chief of Consumersearch.com, and let's start with Al(ph). Al is on the phone from Eaton Prairie, Minnesota.
AL (caller): Hello. It's a bit stormy here, so if there's some thunder just ignore it. I am a professional home appliance repairman and I would say if you really want an honest review and can find an independent repairer then this might be a good place to start. I know some of the member companies may have a conflict of interest, but I think I sometimes take things like consumer reports with a grain of salt because they don't have the skills for that. for long, as said to do long term testing as I see things that have been on the market for five, 10, 15, 20 years.
CONAN: So an independent auto repair shop for the car you least see in your shop.
AL: That's what I mean, especially when they're highly rated. You know, you want to talk to your friends about people who have been treated well, but once you meet someone who has come highly recommended to you, that might be a good time to start with at least some advice, and hopefully you will do too. don't be biased and they will be honest with you.
CONAN: You happen to be a mechanic, Al?
AL: Yes, I am a home appliance repairman.
CONAN: And what devices?
AL: Everything from refrigerators (unintelligible), stoves, dishwashers, washers and dryers. Anyway, I'm practically on it.
CONAN: Okay, Christine Frietchen, do you think Al is giving good advice?
Ms. FRIETCHEN: Yes, especially with objects that are very large. This is especially true for HVAC products such as air conditioners and furnaces, and there is no organization that tests them. Consumer Reports no longer tests them. They are too big and too difficult to test.
We are proud to feature appliance repairers from all over the country in our report. And we started picking up the phone and calling her. And that's exactly what we did. We asked such questions. And you also want to know who they represent, if they represent anyone. But if you can collect enough opinions like that, it's labor intensive, but yes, you can start to hone in on an answer.
CONAN: Al, thanks for the advice.
AL: Thank you. have a great show
CONAN: Appreciate it. This on a tweet from Ammas Ammassi (ph). I'm not sure how to pronounce this: review aggregates on Amazon usually factor into my decisions. I mainly read the five star and one star reviews, crowdsourcing is usually reliable. Do you agree?
Ms. FRIETCHEN: Yes, but I would actually advise the opposite. I look at the two, three and four star ratings. And I pay attention to balance in reviews.
So I want to find someone who likes something for the most part but has a few little things. This is the person speaking to me. A five-star rave is about as useful to me as a one-star pan. If they aren't specific enough in their criticism, I really don't understand.
So it's the people who have mixed feelings about a product that I find to have the most poise and credibility.
CONAN: Here's an email from Tom(ph) in St. Louis: I bought my first new car, an Audi, in 1975 based on a high rating from Consumer Reports. I only had problems with the car, which Consumer Reports a few years later considered one of the used cars to avoid.
I still think they are a good start. I also ask my Facebook friends who have provided useful suggestions, apparently especially about buying a smartphone, an Apple iPhone 3, apparently better than the Apple iPhone 4.
Mrs. FRIETCHEN: The three yes, the 3GS, right.
CONAN: So again, the durability issue with the Audi, which turned out to be a real garage queen.
Ms. FRIETCHEN: Yes, I mean that, and that's actually the danger of any new product, and it's the risk you take when you're an early adopter. When you buy something that has only been on the market for a week or two, you just have no way of knowing what problems will arise.
So in a way it pays to not be trendy. It pays not to queue at the Apple Store at midnight.
CONAN: I don't want to be an early adopter.
Ms FRIETCHEN: No.
CONAN: Buck(ph) is on the phone from Lee's Summit in Missouri.
BUCK: Hallo, Neal.
BUCK: I think one thing people sometimes overlook is the ability to use something like Twitter. And you mentioned Facebook, but you know, Twitter, in 140 characters you say, "Hello, does anyone have experience with X?" And often they will answer you. And I had answers to my questions within 10 to 15 minutes. If that's someone, you're literally standing in the store wondering if I should buy this or that and have someone you follow on Twitter say, "Oh, definitely buy it."
CONAN: Oh, so it's a way to moderate, or at least quantify, those impulse purchases.
BUCK: Okay, and it lines up with what you said earlier about the social network. I mean, it could be anyone from someone you meet at the coffee shop to someone you know professionally and the ability to ask all your friends or your entire social network what to do in one short, concise question. I know that most people will be very willing to help you and you may get an answer very quickly.
CONAN: Christine Frietchen, have you ever asked your Twitter friends if it should be Sony or Sanyo?
Ms. FRIETCHEN: No, but let me tell you that social media is great for things like restaurants. I can get a response from my friends much faster than if I went to Yelp, Urban Spoon, or any other website and tried to figure it out from there.
And those kinds of really personal things, things like bedding, something that people get really passionate about. I know I really love that because it makes me feel good. This is the kind of area where a personal recommendation is very helpful. I mean, hopefully your friends know your taste and what you like.
CONAN: Well, if they slap you, you know where they live.
Ms. FRIETCHEN: Yes, exactly. You can track them down.
CONAN: Buck, thanks for the call.
BUCK: Thank you.
CONAN: Goodbye. Next up is Sara(ph), Sara from us in Davis, California.
SARA (caller): Hi Neal, how nice to hear your voice.
CONAN: Oh, that's nice of you, Sara.
SARA: I often rate everything I buy on Amazon, or read reviews carefully, and I also read and contribute to it. I think it's important that there is one-way traffic there.
And you know, I agree with your guest that the middle stars, the three or four, I want to know why. And I've reviewed some really wonderful products with a few minor issues that I think other people should be aware of and likely buy because they say it's not a problem for me. But I think it's really a one-way street.
CONAN: So you think it's important to give and use ratings.
SARA: Absolutely, absolutely. I trust, yes I trust the reviewers on Amazon. I think she's fantastic.
CONAN: Do you ever worry, Sara, that there might be someone with an intent, say the author of the book, or someone with an opposite intent just after her?
SARA: I've read them both. And you mentioned an author in a book. It's like, come on, can you be any more transparent? So to me, they stand out pretty clearly, but when you're talking about a Bluetooth headset or something, you're not going to get a lot of Plantronics people, you know, write great reviews for it. I do not believe that. Am I wrong?
Ms. FRIETCHEN: Last year, DeLonghi actually got into trouble. One of their communications managers posted a dozen reviews of DeLonghi espresso machines on Amazon.com.
Ms. FRIETCHEN: And yes, the story was published in the Wall Street Journal. And it was a reader like you who discovered these eerie coincidences among these glowing reviews.
Ms. FRIETCHEN: So it happens. But that's another reason to kind of ignore the five stars, you know, I love this product more than life itself.
CONAN: But of course, if they were hip, they would have written some pretty positive things, but you know, cons: Doesn't work well above the Arctic Circle.
SARA: Exactly. Well, so far so good. I must say I have not been scammed. Sometimes a review, even Consumer Reports, even a review, isn't very good - and sometimes my desire for an item overshadows my sanity, and I'll buy it. And I think, hell, I shouldn't have been harsh on those reviewers. You were perfect.
CONAN: Sara, thanks for the call. Good luck.
SARA: Thanks, Neal. Watch out.
CONAN: Email from Leslie (ph) of Kensington, California: I'm on the moms email list and always get great recommendations from moms. The group consists of about 4,000 mothers. They use products like washing machines and dryers the same way I do.
How to join such a list? That's my question. Does your mother have to be?
Ms. FRIETCHEN: There are many. Wonderful lists exist. In fact, the Berkeley Parents' Network is very active in California, and many neighborhood parent groups make very similar lists.
Just the space for baby stuff and parenting in general is so rich with information and great, you know, very personal stories. I mean, when I read a review about a minivan having twins, I want to hear it from someone who has twins and has actually tried putting two car seats in the back seat.
CONAN: This is Sean (ph) from Ohio, back to the question we just talked about: I don't really pay attention to the online customer reviews because I assume at least some of them are made by marketing departments. Is there a way to confirm the legitimacy of reviewers online?
Ms. FRIETCHEN: No, that's a short answer, unless you're really smart and really have some time to figure things out. I mean, in the aforementioned DeLonghi issue, it was one reader who noticed a familiar name. And in this particular case, the employee had used her real name. That's something a clever, sneaky manufacturer probably wouldn't have done.
CONAN: Let's go next to George (ph), George from Traverse City in Michigan.
GEORGE (caller): Hello, Neal. I wanted to give Best (or Consumers Digest) a one-star rating, unlike Consumers Report. I've looked at Consumers Digest a few times and it seems they don't run their own tests or anything similar to Consumers Reports. I also believe, and perhaps Christine can attest, that it is possible for a manufacturer to get a Consumers Digest Best Buy rating.
Ms. FRIETCHEN: Consumers Digest is a very opaque organization and that's the best word I can use, because it's opaque. I mean, what you want from a reviewer is transparency. They want to know who is doing the testing, where they bought it, how long they tested it, and you want to know both the good and the bad. Consumers Digest - You can't even subscribe to Consumers Digest online. When you visit their website, all you will find is a placeholder page and the physical mailing address to which you can write, send a letter, and request information about your subscription. You can find it at some kiosks, but that's it. For me, that's not nearly enough transparency.
CONAN: So the selling point seems to have an uncanny resemblance to the Consumers Reports name.
Ms. FRIETCHEN: Well, yes. I mean, many websites, including ours, contain the word consumer. But yes, you do - it's definitely a confusion you want to avoid.
CONAN: George, thanks for the advice.
GEORGE: Thank you.
CONAN: Goodbye. Email from Paul (ph) in Oakland. I had a horrible stroller that was completely flawed. The company was pretty good. But that was the Ford Pinto of strollers. When I asked them to take it back they didn't. I then went to a few review sites and added a review on every place I could find for this model. I found a few other reviewers who did the same.
The company responded by releasing new colors. Reviews were often associated with certain colors, so the new ones helped hide my reviews. I only come back every now and then to review the new color, as I've been complaining about the frame design and finish. It has now been discontinued, suggesting that Paul was quite annoyed and that annoying Paul wasn't a good idea.
Ms. FRIETCHEN: Well, especially the baby stuff changes almost every year and they change the colors of the upholstery, you know, to match the decor colors of that year. So this is not unusual. However, there is constant frustration at Amazon and other websites as the little identifiers, the AISINs, change every year. And that's what connects a product review to a product.
So if you have a product with the same name and everything else is the same except it changed from the blue color to the green color, you lose those reviews. Now you can withdraw. I mean, the beauty of Amazon is that even for products that have been discontinued, the information generally remains online. This will allow you to do some extra research and look at the reviews from the past year.
CONAN: And I wonder if -- do product manufacturers have divisions that could use that phrase right now -- are at war with the consumer ratings?
Ms. FRIETCHEN: I wouldn't call it war. I mean, I think if you were smart you wouldn't call it war. After manufacturers initially reacted reflexively and were shocked when they read negative reviews about their products, many of them have actually come to accept it and respond to readers. I mean, what's the biggest frustration you feel when you have a lemon yellow product? It's a bad response from the manufacturer. You feel ignored or you feel cornered. You just want someone to help you solve your problem.
Many manufacturers use their social media teams to actually respond to people. And if you do that publicly and let people know that they're actually going to get a good response from you, I think that says a lot about the company.
CONAN: We're talking about research by reviewers. Our guest, Christine Frietchen from - the editor-in-chief of Consumer - Consumersearch.com. I'll fix this
You're listening to NPR News' TALK OF THE NATION.
And here's an email from Dennis (ph) of Traverse City, Michigan. There are a lot of listeners there. I like to rent before I buy, to try the brand for myself. I read reviews and take them with caution. I read consumer reports, but I filter them by reading the fine details and determining what factors are important to me. I rent a model car while on vacation or borrow garden tools from a local company to see how an object works at work.
That's an approach that could work for some products, such as cars. May not work as well for others. Renting a blender is tricky.
Ms FRIETCHEN: That is correct. But you know, you could rent a mattress. Many hotels now have these Marquis mattresses, such as the Tempur-Pedic mattress or, as you know, the Dream mattress. And if you're considering buying a mattress, especially a memory foam mattress, that you may have never slept on...
Ms. FRIETCHEN: ... I mean, one way to try before you buy is to book a night at a hotel and actually sleep on a memory foam mattress.
CONAN: Here's a tweet from Dr. Largest (ph). He advises to go abroad. The British photo magazines give extensive reviews. The US are glorified press releases for the manufacturers.
Mrs. FRIETCHEN: There are some excellent foreign magazines. The products do not always go together. That's for sure. Many electronic devices are not (unintelligibly) different.
CONAN: First, they turned the steering wheel to the other side, yes?
Ms. FRIETCHEN: Yes, exactly. But I can tell you that for the Consumer Search report on winter tires we actually found the best ratings in Scandinavia. That's why we actually translated and read some of these reviews for research purposes.
CONAN: Let's go to Dan(ph), Dan with us from Charlottesville in Virginia.
DAN (caller): Hello, are you there?
CONAN: Dan, please move on quickly.
DAN: I'm sorry. I had to turn off my GPS. It screamed at me.
DAN: A few brief points. Having bought quite a bit from Amazon and Overstock etc, I am one of those lazy people who tend not to leave reviews. I'll just keep going, you know. And I was hoping that the "no news is good news" associated with the Star reports would have some use, which is why the sites don't use a very simple measure of how many units have been sold and how many units have been returned? and not having to rely on someone actually taking the time to write a review?
Second: just really fast. I wish many more sites would use a survey to gather information and make a star based rating, rather than letting the data be skewed by someone giving a one star rating because the delivery person didn't deliver the item, the left in the rain or something like that.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well, Christine, we only have a few seconds, but act quickly. The ratio of units sold to units returned seems like a pretty good idea.
Ms. FRIETCHEN: That's true, except most of these user reviews are published on shopping sites. I'm not sure they really want to tell you how many have been returned. It's a good idea. I like that. And as for the other comment...
CONAN: I forgot about that too.
Ms. FRIETCHEN: Yes, I forgot.
CONAN: Then what was that second point?
THEN: If you don't want to reveal how many units were sold, you might want to express units sold versus units returned as a percentage.
CONAN: Okay. Thanks for the call Dan. Be thankful. Drive carefully and listen to the GPS.
DAN: We will. Thank you.
CONAN: Okay, bye. Christine Frietchen, thank you very much for your time today.
Ms FRIETCHEN: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.
CONAN: Christine Frietchen, editor-in-chief of Consumersearch.com, is with us today from our New York office.
Het is NPR News' TALK OF THE NATION.
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