The consumer champion

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As Which? celebrates its 54th birthday this year, IER takes a close look at the breadth of the organisation’s testing expertise and its Awards programme.

Which? has certainly come a long way from its humble beginnings when its first magazine was published from a converted garage in Bethnal Green.  Today, it is the largest consumer rights body in the UK, with over 650,000 members.  Which? is a registered charity, and is completely independent.  All profits made through the sales of its magazines and books are ploughed back into campaigning on behalf of UK consumers.  Which? was one of the first consumer organisations given powers to make super-complaints to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), under the Enterprise Act 2002.  Recently Which? used these powers to issue a super-complaint to the OFT, asking it to investigate the practice of credit and debit card surcharging.

To keep its diverse audience happy – from concerned parents wanting to buy the best baby monitors, to technology fiends desperate for the latest test results on must-have TVs or MP3 players, or harassed householders forced into replacing their broken washing machine – Which? now tests and publishes results on more products, quicker, more thoroughly and expertly than anyone else.

Testing

Its aim is to provide unbiased, rigorous and expert reviews of new products as quickly as possible. This involves a finely tuned, test strategy ensuring that the Which? testers can quickly source, test and analyse products, then post reviews on its website immediately. To ensure its advice is the best on offer, Which? works with up to 18 expert test labs in five countries. Which? also shares some testing with international equivalents of Which?  For example, testing with its US counterparts where technology products are launched earlier than the UK means it has test results to publish as soon as products hit the shops in this country.

Which? is well-known for the high standards it sets in product testing. All tests reference British or European Standards where relevant, but testing is always tailored to meet the specific needs of consumers.  Its research team constantly checks that test programmes properly reflect real consumer practice in the home, by surveying members or monitoring reader feedback. For example, the European washing machines Standard specifies testing a 60° wash programme, but Which?’s research confirms most people use a 40° – or increasingly a 30° programme – so it tests accordingly.  Where there isn’t a published industry Standard, such as when testing sat navs, Which? has devised its own.

Independence is crucial to Which?  It buys everything it tests, and never accepts freebies. Testing is comparative, with all models tested and treated in exactly the same way, and results are recorded under code names to avoid any potential bias from lab assessors. Once testing is completed, Which?’s scientific advisers scrutinise the data and evaluate it into star ratings, overall test scores and Best Buy, or Don’t Buy, recommendations. Which? has also devised an Energy Saver logo to identify which of the best models featured in its monthly magazine meet its stringent criteria for measuring energy saving.

Which?’s testing goes to extraordinary lengths to get results which will highlight the real differences between products. Its vacuum cleaner test lab sources real dog and cat hair, homogenised to ensure consistency, which the lab technician patiently combs into carpet to test vacs’ pet hair removing abilities. Microwave safety testing includes running the microwaves with a nail embedded in a potato, and 7 million temperature readings are taken for each fridge freezer it tests.

Taking home appliances alone, Which?’s test regime covers around 100 refrigeration models a year, around 50 dishwashers, and nearly 200 small kitchen appliances. Five years ago, Which? tested around 40 washing machine models each year. It now tests up to 100 each year, sending small batches of models to its test lab virtually every month on a continuous cycle.

This continuous test cycle is true of most electrical appliances Which? tests – it allows the consumer champion to bring readers test results of newly launched models with only minimal delay after they hit the shops. In the competitive, fast-moving arena of technology products, this speed to publication is essential. Which? now tests over 100 TVs a year, and its rigorous test regime involves the five experts on its long-established viewing and listening panel scrutinising the same material on each TV and giving ratings and comments.  This is backed up by independent lab experts’ comparative assessments of features, power use and ratings on how easy to use each TV is.

As well as awarding its Best Buy stamp to the products which show exceptional performance in its tests, Which? never baulks at criticising products which perform poorly. Its Don’t Buy designation applies to any product which fails to reach acceptable standards in its rigorous tests.

Celebrating

In June, Which? will host its 5th annual award ceremony at Kings Place in London.  The Awards were launched in 2007 to mark the 50th anniversary of Which? with the aim of rewarding the very best businesses in the UK. From cars and domestic appliances, to restaurants and high-street retailers, Which? publicly recognises those companies and individuals that consistently get it right for consumers.

Unlike many awards, companies cannot put themselves forward for a Which? Award. Most of the shortlisted companies are selected for their performance throughout the year in Which? Best Buy tables, as well as the results of customer satisfaction surveys. The Good Food Guide Restaurant of the Year Award is the only award open to nominations from members of the public, and the shortlist is based on these nominations, together with additional criteria such as restaurant buying policies and menu prices. In addition, the Which? Local Business of the Year shortlist is based on recommendations from Which? members and seeks to recognise great customer service and excellent work by local businesses.

Although they cannot put themselves forward for an award, Which? actively encourages manufacturers and retailers to get in touch to discuss the results of its product tests and customer satisfaction surveys so they can learn from the results and continue to improve their products and services for consumers.

This year Which? has extended the number of categories to be celebrated at the awards.  For the first time it will award two home appliance companies, with the Best Small Home Appliance Brand and Best Large Home Appliance Brand categories, allowing Which? to reflect the breadth of products it covers in its research.  It has also introduced the Best Portable Media Brand (covering netbooks, laptops, tablets, notebooks and MP3 players) and Best Photography Brand (covering cameras – compact, bridge and SLR, HD camcorders, ink-jet printers and digital photoframes).  The Best Home Audio-Visual Brand will now specifically cover televisions, DVD and Blu-ray players.  There will also be awards for the Best Car Manufacturer, Best Financial Services Provider, Best High Street Retailer, Best Home Audio-Visual Brand, Best Large Ho
me Appliance Brand, Best Mobile Service Provider, Best Online Retailer, Best Supermarket and Best Travel Company. N

For more information about the Which? Awards please contact the Which? External Affairs team on 0207 770 7000 or ExternalAffairs@which.co.uk

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