How Consumers Union guards your shopping dollar

Half private detective, half wary housewife, a controversial group of product testers keeps manufacturers on their toes and tells nearly a million North Americans how to get value for their money

BARBARA MOON July 18 1959

How Consumers Union guards your shopping dollar

Half private detective, half wary housewife, a controversial group of product testers keeps manufacturers on their toes and tells nearly a million North Americans how to get value for their money

BARBARA MOON July 18 1959

How Consumers Union guards your shopping dollar


Half private detective, half wary housewife, a controversial group of product testers keeps manufacturers on their toes and tells nearly a million North Americans how to get value for their money


NO ONE LIKES to make a bad buy, and no one likes to be bamboozled.

A hundred years ago, when the “market place” still meant Town Hall square where the farmers set up their stalls, neighbors could get together and swap enough information and experience to sort out good value for their money. Today new items appear on supermarket shelves at the rate of up to two hundred a week. The smoker has more than fifty brands and types of cigarette to choose from. The prospective car buyer must shop among seventeen different do-

mestic makes, with a dozen different models apiece, and a score of foreign imports. The housewife is faced daily with new miracle fabrics, new patent medicines, new hair rinses and light bulbs in slick new shapes. The lightning-rod salesmen, the medicine men and the rainmakers also come in slick, new, twentiethcentury shapes.

The postwar market place has, in fact, grown so confounding that professors have begun to write whole textbooks on how to buy wisely. A few universities have already established courses in consumer

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Giveaways, gimmicks and fancy prices cut no ice. These consumer experts want to know: “How good is it? Is it worth the money?” Here’s how they get their answers

economics. In Canada a Canadian Association of Consumers, which has a membership of twentyfive thousand and is affiliated with sixteen national organizations, has been safeguarding the housewife's interests since 1948. In the United States this spring Senator Estes Kefauver introduced a hill to establish a federal Department of Consumers. saying, "Mr. President, this bill is a product of our times.”

But, in the new, naughty commercialized world, the closest counterpart to the old neighborly pool of product information is a novel non - profit organization called Consumers Union of U. S. Inc., Mount Vernon, N.Y.

CU — as its staff and clients call it — operates out of a red-brick factory forty miles north of Grand Central Station in the macadamized dells of Westchester C ounty. It tests and rates merchandise ranging from refrigerators, toothpaste and tomato soup to cigarettes, whisky and shotguns; it then publishes the test results, listing the goods by brand name in order of merit, in a monthly journal called Consumer Reports, which is available in the U. S. and Canada by subscription and on the newsstands. Since his comparison shopping has been done by expert proxy, the faithful reader of Consumer Reports may be considered armed to buy wisely and warned of any commercial mischiefs being worked against him. According to the latest count, eight hundred and fifty thousand people (including some forty-five thousand in Canada) sufficiently wish such an alert that they deputize C'U — at five dollars per head per year — to provide it.

In twenty-three years of operation this citizens’ watch, ward and purgative society has uncovered some notable mix-ups and mischiefs. In one of its earliest issues. C'U reported that mineral oil nose drops were dangerous, and even deadly. Last year it rated one $39.75 innerspring mattress higher than all but one of the $79.50 brands, and one $89 hi-fi loudspeaker higher than others priced up to $359. Just this May it appraised a new device nationally, and radiantly, advertised under the banner: “Now . . . Run Your Car Without Spark Plugs.” CU pointed out that the device was itself a spark plug — and an indifferent one at

that, though it cost fifty cents more than a standard plug.

At various junctures in between, CU has reported that anti-histamines would neither abort nor shorten a cold; that in safety tests of thirtynine auto seat belts, two thirds gave way; that of seventeen twenty-one-inch TV sets, ten models offered too poor a picture to warrant further testing; that twenty-six of thirty-eight brands of sunglasses were unacceptable because of "severe optical defects”; that one out of every three gallons of brake fluid manufactured in the U. S. last year was inferior and unsafe, and that some cigarette filters, added to reduce lung-cancer risks, were less effective as filters than the tobacco they replaced.

CU uses its findings not only to cite dangerous and defective commodities but also to illustrate, in a laconic way, certain object lessons. These include its contention that not every price is an indication, nor every brand name a guarantee, of quality, and its thesis that advertising is guilty from time to time of wanton misrepresentation, or simple chicane. C'U recently leapt, like hound on stag, onto TV claims that an electric shaver for women was so gentle it could be used on a stockinged leg without harm to the nylons. CU tested it. along with a rival razor, reported that both ripped about half the stockings and commented solemnly, “Anyone who is dead set on shaving her nylons had better find another method.”

Understandably, some citizens are not captivated by an outfit so discourteous as publicly to call an adman’s bluff, or to flunk an entry by brand name, or to suggest that a product is not worth the asking price. The Harvard Business Review reports the secretary of one U. S. trade association as saying. “1 just don't believe in this sort of thing. It’s contrary to our way of life. The whole idea questions the honesty of advertising, and this is not to be questioned, in my judgment.”

Besides being called unpatriotic, CU has been called “anti-big business,” "a Communist front,” and, bluntly, “dishonest.” The charge that seems to rile the organization most is that of dishonesty. It is a fact that the question most often asked by bare acquaintances of Consumer Reports goes, ‘‘Is it on the level?”

CU's technical director, Morris Kaplan, recalls that shortly after he joined the staff, in 1947, a manufacturer phoned from Syracuse to ask him, “What do we have to ‘do to get a good rating?”

CU. consequently, is at great pains to guard its independence and to have the affidavits in the files.

It accepts no advertising and each issue of the Reports carries the warning, “Neither the ratings nor the reports may be used in advertising or for any commercial purpose of any nature.” From time to time manufacturers of top-rated merchandise covet extra copies of the Reports for use in promotion. Since CU will sell no more than nine copies of any issue to any person without a signed pledge forswearing use in advertising or publicity, determined manufacturers have to step lively. On one occasion the maker of a top-rated summer suit phoned to order a thousand copies. CU policy was explained: no bulk orders — except, of course, to educational institutions. Shortly thereafter “an official of Antioch College, Ohio,” phoned to order a thousand copies, which were to be delivered to him immediately at his temporary New York address. The CU switchboard operator matched the two voices and mentioned it to the subscription department head. The copies were rescued from the garment district just in time.

Everything CU tests is bought on the open market, and it accepts no samples. Since it is incorporated as an educational organization it also makes no profit and takes no gifts. CU's director. Dexter Masters, comments wryly. “We couldn’t even take two hundred dollars under a will.”

CU's yearly income — between three and four millions—comes from the sale of its publications, and often does not stretch to projects the group would like to undertake. In its very early years it could afford only to rate such products as cereals, health salts and soap. CU gets sonic small additional revenue from auctioning off its used test samples, though major durable goods such as cars and TV sets are traded in on models for new tests.

CU's board of unpaid directors and its working staff of about two hundred are forbidden to hold stock in any commercial enterprise, and it’s a rule that no individual engineer or chemist converse

privately with any manufacturer. In fact talk from manufacturers, whether in person or by telephone, is discouraged: CU wants it in writing.

The staff co-operates. A couple of years ago the head of a tire-testing laboratory in Texas, whose facilities CU had rented, sent a Christmas case of oranges and grapefruit to Kaplan. When Mrs. Kaplan phoned to report the gift Kaplan said crisply, Send it back.” His wife pointed out that this was fairly prodigal since the fruit would rot on the return trip. Kaplan came up with a solution. He sent the fruit to a nearby orphanage, got a receipt (with a copy for the CU files) and forwarded it to the donor with a gentle note of ex-

planation. The donor obviously caught the CU spirit: the following year his modest Christmas card to Kaplan noted that this time he’d sent the fruit straight to the orphanage.

In spite of its rigorous house rules CU has managed to assemble a small but topnotch staff. They include the big, shrewd-eyed president. Dr. Colston Warne, professor of economics at Amherst College and CU’s self-styled “foreign minister.” They include Dexter Masters, the vigorous, greying boss-in-residence, who has had wide editorial experience w'ith business and marketing publications and has, at various times, served as consultant to the Federation of Atomic Scientists, the

Institute of Physics and the Office of Scientific Research and Development. They also include the stocky, cordial technical director Kaplan, who has been described in the Harvard Business Review as “one of the keenest and finest technical men in the country.”

The publications director is Dave Maness, a bespectacled and engaging young man who was formerly assistant managing editor of Collier’s.

The staffers are attracted by the job itself — and by excellent salaries under a contract with the American Newspaper Guild.

Besides its staff, CU manages to get many others into the act.

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“Last year subscribers wanted ratings on electric organs, caskets, dog foods and brassieres“

It starts with the subscribers. Each year CU polls them for their choice of products to be rated. As many as one, hundred and twenty-eight thousand may reply —usually more helpfully than the man who, listing himself in the twenty-

five-thousand-dollar-a-year bracket, last year responded, “I have everything.”

By now it’s a fairly safe bet that sub,cribéis will ask for still more information on cars, washing machines and hi-fi components. Last year they also sug-

gested rating electronic organs, funeral caskets, dog food and brassieres.

The poll, pieced out with market information on new' or improved products, becomes the basis for CU’s testing program and for its publication schedule.

Consumer Reports also includes ratings of current movies, timely comment on economic issues like the new boom in credit cards, and medical articles by CU's consultant. Dr. Harold Aaron. CU is trying increasingly to get into print at the psychological moment with reports on children’s shoes, for example, just before school opens, and reports on air-conditioners in June. Aaron’s discussions of such subjects as sex and bed-wetting are commonly held till the summer issues, when children aren’t so likely to see them.

After preliminary intramural haggling about how to cover the main national brands without breaking the budget, CU calls on its shoppers. Five male shoppers, who cover the New York market, are on permanent strength. In addition some eighty-five CU members in sixty - one cities shop Under CU's direction, for $1.25 an hour plus expenses. Because of the complications of getting test samples through customs CU does not shop the Canadian market. However, for a report on tars and nicotines in cigarettes, in November, 1957, it obtained eight Canadian brands through its Buffalo shopper and since then it has started listing Canadian equivalents of test models wherever possible.

Shoppers are instructed never to mention CU’s name when making purchases — a rule that at least once has led to an impasse. Some years ago, for a report on men's hats, a particularly puny CU shopper w'as dispatched to buy the specified brands. In each shop, to lend authenticity to his role of lay shopper, he was to ask firmly for “a blue fedora, size six and three quarters,” adding the style and model number. He worked his way down his list in fine style until he entered a chic Ivy League outlet to order their house brand. The clerk surveyed him and shook his head firmly. The shopper repeated the specifications. The clerk looked pained and shook his head again.

“Why not?” asked the shopper plaintively.

"It." said the clerk with withering reproof, “is not Your Hat.”

The samples thus strenuously assembled are assessed in one or any combination of three ways: by test tube and sliderule. by actual use, or by expert opinion. One continuing CU problem is, simply, how to concoct tests for the qualities it feels consumers deserve in a product. The problem was underlined some years ago when CU decided to test nail polish. It invented an appealing set of laboratory procedures for measuring durability under various conditions. Then, as a check, it asked a group of housewives actually to use the polishes: the two that had been rated tops in the lab proved the worst for wear and the two that had flunked the tests were voted best. CU couldn’t, and still can’t, explain it.

But products like brake fluids can be judged by simple laboratory measurement of boiling point. Products like cars can also be compared according to precise factors like acceleration, piston travel per mile and fuel economy. However CU thinks it important to extend its car appraisals to handling, passenger comfort and idiosyncrasies of behavior such as “rear-wheel skitter" or “fast-start squat." So CU’s automotive consultant, Laurence Crooks, and his staff of three drive every car more than two thousand miles in road tests, freeway runs, backwoods slogs

and general suburban hacking. Other CU staffers may run six thousand slices of bread through test toasters or*»-piit test mascara on rabbits' eyelashes to detect irritating ingredients.

Children's shoes are sent out to orphanages for actual wear; home permanents are tried on volunteers' hair; and when, this year. CU decided to test an assortment of smoking deterrents, it scouted around till it found sixty people who wanted to give up smoking.

Some commodities resist all laboratory and use tests and. CU feels, can be assessed only in terms of expert opinion. The consultant system has occasional hazards. When liquor was rated last Christmas the panel originally included an amateur as .veil as professional tasters. He had to be dropped when someone noticed he was not only tasting but swallowing.

When the voluminous test results are finally compiled — it may take anywhere from a few weeks to a full year — the findings must still be converted into reading matter, with a box score that rates the products as Best Buys, Acceptable and Not Acceptable. The general tone of Consumer Reports is neat but not gaudy. The publications director, Dave Maness. recently recalled his first interview for the job. He was told. “The writers will write a bright, catchy lead. Your job as editor is to cross out the first two paragraphs of every report.” Masters, the director, explains. “We deliberately keep it a little fuddy-duddy: we want to avoid any hint of sensationalism."

For an outfit of such impervious propriety CU has had a surprisingly frisky career.

Maverick organization

It is. to begin with, a maverick, having broken away from its parent organization — and still its only rival in the field — Consumers' Research. The orginal agency was founded in 1928 by a bantam cock named Frederick John Schlink, who was a physicist, a mechanical engineer and the co-author of Your Money’s Worth, which had been a Book-of-theMonth Club choice in 1927. Later, in 1933. along with an engineer named Arthur Kallet, Schlink wrote 100,000,000 Guinea Rigs. Both books were compilations of evidence that the public was being conned into buying foods, drugs, cosmetics and other commodities that were over-expensive, inadequate and, in many cases, downright pernicious. Both are still among the books most often stolen from public libraries. Schlink started his testing agency with its own publication. now called Consumer Bulletin, when readers of his first book started mailing pleas for personal shopping guidance.

Guinea Pigs’ co-author, Kallet, became secretary of the fledgling organization but when, in 1935, Schlink refused to negotiate with a newly formed staff union, Kallet sided with the workers. He became the first director of Consumers Union, incorporated in New York in 1936, and is still on its board of directors.

I he first CU subscribers were former Consumers’ Research members whose subscriptions Schlink had canceled out of band when they wrote to criticize his labor policy. The new organization had a staff of fifteen, who worked for ten dollars a week and the weal of the working class. They wanted, among other things, to help the laborer stretch his meagre depression wage-packet by getting him more for his money. The general climate around their first tiny New York headquarters was that benevolent zeal that one commentator called “the

bleeding-heart Leftism of the Thirties.”

Consequently, with the onset of the witch-hunting Forties and of epidemic list-making in the U. S.. CU was cited by the I3ies committee and by some private groups as “a subversive organization." CU finally requested a hearing before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and. fourteen years after the first citation, was given a clean slate. The committee promptly publicized the episode as proof that it was always willing to reverse unjust charges.

The organization was meeting hostility

and suspicion in other quarters, too. Its files contain a list of twenty-nine U. S. newspapers and magazines — including the New York Times, Popular Mechanics, the Christian Science Monitor and the Saturday Evening Rost — that refused its promotional advertising in 1938 and 1939. Though CU didn't try again until last year, its credentials had by then apparently become acceptable. In March, 1958. newspapers in fourteen U. S. cities ran CLJ ads for the first time — halfcolumn announcements of the annual automobile issue.

Another early source of trouble for CU was the U. S. post office, which in 1941 barred from the mails a CU pamphlet on contraceptive materials prepared for physicians and married subscribers. The cost of CU’s ultimately successful action against the post office was met by voluntary donations from loyal CU members, in amounts ranging from ten cents to fifty dollars.

But there were too few members for comfort. CU had struggled up to a circulation of eighty-five thousand but the outbreak of war sent it down to fifty-five

thousand. There were few goods on the market and besides, people were putting their money into war bonds.

Then the war ended. Consumer goods reflooded the market, complex gadgets like TV and the automatic transmission appeared, brands of soap and soup and toothpaste proliferated. People started spending money as though it were going to be called in overnight. CU began to mushroom.

In the fourteen years since then. Americans have built twelve million new houses and resolutely equipped them with the furniture, radios, TV sets, refrigerators and appliances now considered basic to existence. Canadians have built and equipped one million new houses in the same period. Last year alone Canadians spent twenty billion dollars on consumer goods and services; Americans spent around $300 billions.

And, to compete for the consumer’s patronage, the producers of goods and services spent a combined twelve billion dollars in Canada and the U. S. on advertising alone.

$15 billion in buying power

In the avid, shrill, jostling postwar market place CU’s circulation has exploded from fifty-five thousand to eight hundred and fifty thousand; but the CU subscriber, it now seems, is not who he was originally supposed to be.

He is not a working man with a skimpy income that must be stretched. Though Consumer Reports still lists among CU's aims the effort to “create and maintain decent living standards,” the subscriber’s living standard, by his own account, is just fine. According to the most recently published CU poll, the median income of subscribers is just over eight thousand dollars. One out of every twenty - five members is in the twenty-five-thousanddollar-a-year bracket. More than seventy percent of CU families have one or more members with some college education. CU subscribers are estimated to control buying power worth more than fifteen billion dollars.

Yet when two writers surveyed CU’s impact on business for the Harvard Business Review, in 1954, only two sales managers out of fifty-two thought a favorable rating had a “great effect” on sales; none had ever spent money to measure the actual impact, but none thought a bad rating had a great effect.

There’s even some evidence that CU subscribers themselves discount the ratings: in 1957 CU polled its readers’ reasons for buying the cars they had. They listed “car’s reputation” as the prime reason; “CU’s ratings” lagged in sixth place.

For these and other reasons it is easy to disparage CU’s influence in the market place. Yet there is a growing witness that it has influence. Where CU lists a number of brands as Acceptable, its ratings may not be mirrored in any sales charts; but singling out one brand as a Best Buy may lead to a sell-out. One hat manufacturer reported a near-one-hundred-percent sales increase at some outlets following a top rating. A men’s summer-suit maker gave a high CU rating credit for a sixty percent increase in dealer orders.

As for low-rated products, scattered through CU’s annual twenty-thousandletter mailbag are hundreds of letters from satisfied clients thanking the organization for touting them off inadequate, defective or unsuitable merchandise. “I saved more than $200 by reading a single issue.” wrote one woman gratefully.

And if it doesn't hit him in the cash register, a bad rating often hits a manu-

facturer in his pride. The head of a mailorder testing laboratory, commenting on the effect of a low CU score, said, “I get hell from the top down when this sort of thing happens.” Nearly half the companies surveyed by the Harvard Business Review confessed at least to an occasional change in their merchandise after a bad rating. One radio dealer went so far as to withdraw a model from the market after CU listed it Not Acceptable.

CU staffers themselves are sure their influence is strong—and growing Kaplan, the technical director, says, “Ten years ago a big company like Frigidaire wouldn’t give us the time of day. We’d write for market information. No reply. None. Now some of them have top-level liaison officers whose job is to provide CU with all the information we want about their products.”

CU’s tests sometimes reverberate in other arenas too. Its repeated checks of tar and nicotine content in cigarettes have undoubtedly prodded the Federal Trade Commission into stricter policing of cigarette advertising; its report this March on strontium-90 in the milk supplies of forty-eight U. S. cities, plus Winnipeg and Quebec City, has provided new ammunition for discussions of the problem right across the land.

Such influence, however, must still be regarded as incidental to CU’s main and continuing ideal: the education of

thoughtful, thrifty, sophisticated consumers.

It can report at least one graduate.

Shortly after CU had rated several brands of wallpaper cleaner, a subscriber phoned to ask for the chemist who had conducted the tests. “It’s a matter of life and death,” she insisted. The chemist, impressed, asked her why. She had made a batch of fried chicken the night before, the woman explained hysterically, to serve at a lunch party. Her husband, on a midnight refrigerator raid, had eaten some and reported an odd taste. Retracing her cooking procedures she had discovered the accidental substitution of the floury cleaner for genuine flour. “Will it kill him?” she sobbed.

The chemist said no: the basic ingredient of the cleaner was wheat flour.

There was shaken and relieved silence for a moment.

“Then would it,” the subscriber asked next, “be all right to go ahead and serve it to my guests?” it