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Several years ago, I was in the market for a new television. I had a VISIO LCD TV from Costco. Although it seemed like a great deal when I purchased it, it was not as reliable as I thought. It lasted only 5 years before the picture went out. I didn’t want to make the same mistake again, so I did more research this time.
I searched for the best TVs on Google and found many review sites full of recommendations. The problem was there was no consistency. Despite all the information, I was no closer to finding the TV I wanted.
Most of the review sites were based on customer reviews. After reading through them, I found nothing verifiable from the comments. At the end of the day, they were all opinions. The only thing I drew from the comments is whether more people favored or disfavored a certain TV model and for a variety of reasons, none scientific. I wouldn’t know if a reviewer had any bias for or against certain brands. Nor would I know if a review was covertly written by a company or a competitor.
The experience was like asking as many people as possible for their opinion and ending up more confused in the process. I just wanted a source I can wholeheartedly rely on, which can objectively provide all the pros and cons.
Luckily, I remembered the Consumer Reports buying guides that I read when buying a used car. With the internet at our fingertips all the time, I had forgotten about this resource. So I went to the library, asked for them, and did my research.
I found all the recommended TVs for the size I wanted. They all had their pros and cons. They were ranked, but what was most important to me was reliability and the features that I wanted. That was not necessarily the highest ranking television model, but it was amongst the recommended models. I can logically make a decision on what I must have, what I can live with, and what I can live without, for the price I am going to pay. Not only is the information objective, it also helped me make an objective decision in the process. In the end, I can honestly say that I am happy, satisfied, and content with my purchase, knowing I made the best decision possible that was right for me. I ended up buying a Samsung LCD TV and have no complaints whatsoever.
Why are “Informed” Shoppers Today Relying on Online Reviews from Random Consumers?
This is a head-scratcher to me. Millennials, more than other age groups, tend to rely on online reviews from customers. Consumer Reports users skew towards the 55 and older generations.
I have read enough reviews on Yelp, Google Reviews , or Amazon Reviews to know they are unreliable. I have seen bad reviews about certain businesses mysteriously disappear, undoubtedly removed by threats of legal action, which obviously results in only positive reviews.
And then there is the online business of recommending products to earn commissions. You have to scrutinize the article to determine whether it is truly unbiased or hiding as an endorsement. In today’s digital environment, I scrutinize every article I read online and make sure it is unbiased. It doesn’t matter what kind of article it is, including news and even sports. I check the source. I want to see if it’s unbiased journalism, a blog, an opinion-editorial or “op-ed”, or a marketing promotion. I ask what is the author’s motivation.
I suspect the reason why millennials tend to rely on online reviews from customers more frequently is the result of convenience and learned behavior forged by the tech industry.
Customer reviews have been in existence on consumer tech sites for decades. eBay was one of the first to proliferate them so customers can vet out unknown vendors. Travel sites like TripAdvisor, Kayak, and Expedia aggregate customer reviews to give their users a way to scrutinize services, for instance at hotels. Angi does the same for personal services. This is not to say there isn’t a place for this methodology. It works primarily for services since objective testing is not possible unless someone goes undercover. But for products, there is a better way.
It is also easier to quickly read some customer reviews than to proactively research a product or service. Signing onto Consumer Reports’ website and going through their information takes some time, not to mention it requires a subscription.
Joining the crowd is also safe. It’s human nature. But it’s not foolproof. Is it safe to join a crowd gathering to get a closer look at a burning building?
One last factor is cost. Customer feedback is free. A subscription to Consumer Reports online is not. And if you don’t want to subscribe, then purchasing their Buyers’ Guide costs money, too. The free alternative is to look it up at the library, but that requires an inconvenient special trip. Or accessing the free online versions on library websites, but is also a special effort.
The tech industry has also sold us on democratization. But that’s a fallacy in critical reasoning. Aggregating customer reviews to draw a popular conclusion is an act of democratization. Democratizing does not necessarily equate to making the best decision. Popularity does not necessarily equate to the best choice. Which car is the most popular? Is it also the best? Is it the best for you?
Finally, have you ever read so many customer reviews that it made your head spin? Have you ever read 9 positive reviews and then came across the one really bad one? Now you suddenly placed a lot more weight on the negative one since it is so severe that it overrode all the goodwill from the 9 others. There’s too much subjectiveness involved.
Why I Like Consumer Reports
In my experience, leaning on Consumer Reports for my research has always given me satisfaction in my decision. Even if the product I ultimately purchased was not perfect, I felt content knowing that I understood my purchase expectations. I decided for myself, not based on other people’s opinions.
Consumer Reports is a nonprofit providing a public service since 1936. Through its service, it has raised awareness of several dangerous product issues over the years. And it protects consumers from deceptive marketing practices.
It is funded traditionally by subscriptions, grants, and donations. It turns down ad revenue, the holy grail of most websites’ income. Simply no sponsorship deals allowed.
Its website does contain affiliate links to some major retailers like Amazon and Walmart, for example. However, 100% of its commissions are used to support its independent mission as a nonprofit. And you can see it does not have an exclusive relationship to one retailer, like you would see for a lot of Amazon affiliate websites. It’s retailer agnostic.
It uses its funds to run rigorous, comprehensive tests on its own. Their main goal is to give you an objective conclusion, whether you agree with them or not.
There are other review sites that utilize independent testing as well. Wirecutter is one and I believe is a good alternative. But they also factor customer reviews into their recommendations, bringing some subjectivity into the process. Their recommendations are vetted by their testers and editors before release. Similarly, they earn affiliate commissions without exclusive relationships to any retailer. However, they sprinkle ads on their website cover pages though, but not on product review pages. Tom’s Guide does the same.
Consumer Reports’ website does show customer reviews, both positive and negative. But they are not mixed into their internal testing conclusions. For me, I like this complete objectivity.
I would compare the experience between Consumer Reports and Wirecutter like this. Consumer Reports is more like “just give me the facts”. Wirecutter is more like reading a story about the experience. I personally prefer just the facts, but I have nothing against someone who prefers the story-telling experience.
I found Consumer Reports’ methodology truly unbiased and it will not compromise its objectivity by selling out to revenue-generating opportunities.
I love the fact that it lists both pros and cons, even for the highest-rated products. It is not about picking the highest-rated product. It is finding the best product for you that meets your expectations.
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