On Behalf of Consumers — Ratings, Advocacy, and More



An Interview with Liam McCormack, Consumer Reports

What do you see as the role of consumers in standards activities?

Consumers should be represented in standards committees. As end users of products, consumers bring a really critical point of view as well as real-world use.

To deeply understand how consumers use products at home, we may send some of our researchers into the home to do in-depth interviews with consumers and observe how they use products, which is really enlightening about how things are used. The way that consumers actually use consumer products in their homes or in their lives can often be somewhat different from how manufacturers might imagine they’ll be used.

We’ve also recruited consumers from our subscriber base to join standards committees. We know that we have many engineers among our readers who have a lot to contribute. The development of a good standard requires consumer input to be based in real-world use.

How does your testing team use standards from standards developing organizations like ASTM?

Standards, including ASTM standards, are an essential source of information for us. We always consult them. When we develop our test protocols, we look at what standards are out there, whether ASTM, AHAM [Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers], UL, or other.

We also have our engineers sitting on several ASTM committees. It’s very important for us to be represented in that world. In some areas we have been very actively involved in the development of standards, including ASTM’s standards for juvenile products like cribs, strollers, and high chairs as well as recreational products like bike helmets.

We look at consumers’ priorities and how consumers use products in the real world. When we develop our own tests, we view a standard as a starting point and use all these inputs to develop our own methodology.

Another difference is that standards are pretty much pass/fail, but at Consumer Reports we’re all about comparative evaluation and rating — we cover several hundred plus product categories — on scales. So we are not determining if a product is compliant or legally fit for sale but rather how it performs relative to its peers in order for consumers to make better choices.

Sometimes, when we believe there is a marketplace need and we have unique expertise, we may create what is effectively our own standard to raise the bar for manufacturers. A good, recent example of this is our development a few years ago of a new protocol for evaluating child car seats.

In our view, the current legal minimum standard for child car seats doesn’t reflect what people experience in the real world today, so through a long process of research and development, we created our own test, which almost acts as a de facto industry standard. We know from manufacturers that when they launch a new child car seat they want to perform well in the Consumer Reports test, so they are incorporating it into their own pre-production R&D.

Most of this testing takes place at our own internal labs. We test several thousand products in-house, which is 75 to 80 percent of the products that we report on. We also use some outside labs, accredited for a particular test, for example for food safety testing. Our large team of over 100 test engineers focuses on different product categories. We have expert staff who specialize but are also adept at learning categories as new products and services emerge and new protocols are developed.

What policy and advocacy efforts are Consumer Reports undertaking?

Generally, we work on health, safety, sustainability, technology, and financial security matters. We advocate for transparent markets that give consumers a good value and provide them with meaningful choices on how to spend their hard-earned money. We recently conducted the first in a series of what we are calling our Consumer Voices Survey to gauge consumer sentiment around a host of issues. What we learned is that consumers lack confidence in key areas, including access to health care, the cost of higher education, and the protection of personal data. One focus for us is security and privacy.

The lab and scientific data we collect as part of our testing and research also helps our policy staff to push for marketplace change.

We have a few efforts underway right now that connect our rigorous data analysis and testing with a call for marketplace action. One is our focus on laundry pods — we’re obviously concerned, as ASTM is, about the number of calls to poison control because of laundry pods. As of right now, we won’t recommend any pods because of the risk to children. We’re active on the relevant ASTM subcommittee that helped establish the new standard, and we’re monitoring the data very closely.

Furniture tipover is another one, and we’re concerned about the number of deaths and injuries to children as a result of furniture tipping over. We’re on the ASTM subcommittee looking at the best way to evaluate these products. Again, we’re hoping that work will lead to something tangible as well.

As a nonprofit, mission-focused organization, our advocacy efforts are integral to our work.

What are Consumer Reports’ priorities and goals for 2017?

We finalized a new strategic plan last year. The key themes of the plan are increase consumer power and help to make the world a fairer, safer, and healthier place. As we developed our new strategic plan, we focused on a set of key priority issues where consumers experience the most frustration and harm. Data security and privacy is one of those key priorities for us.

We see endless stories of private data being leaked and consumers being hacked as well as the vast proliferation of connected products and devices. We saw a need to do what we do best: comparative testing and analysis. Even with the first few apps and connected products that we looked at during the pilot development phase, we found egregious lapses of security and privacy, which we reported in our magazine and on our website.

It’s very much a developing area and everyone we spoke to, whether in government or the private security world, said there’s a real gap that Consumer Reports can fill.

We’ve been collaborating with some leading cybersecurity partners in developing a standard for how products and services safeguard consumers’ security and privacy. Standards are sorely lacking in this area. A standard will equip CR and other organizations to test and rate products in terms of handling consumers’ private data. Our goal is to hold companies accountable, and that manufacturers will look at this standard and begin to design products that meet it.

We’ve opened the draft standard for comments and collaboration so that consumers — whether they’re experts or hobbyists — can observe the development, and can weigh in or respond. We believe that this is a very important project for consumers. You can find it at thedigitalstandard.org, and we encourage manufacturers to weigh in as well. This is a standard that affects us all.

How do you interact with like-minded organizations based in other parts of the world?

We’re part of several international consortia. In the world of product testing, the key one is International Consumer Research and Testing Ltd., or ICRT. They have 40 or 50 members [representing organizations with fewer than 10,000 subscribers and those with millions of subscribers], and they’re all like-minded organizations, so they have similar models to Consumer Reports. They are independent. They don’t take advertising, and they are free from the influence of government and manufacturers.

Given that testing can be quite expensive and lots of product models can be found all over the world, we do a lot of projects with ICRT. As well as sharing projects, we share information.

For example, a testing partner in Europe said to us that they had tested some off-brand carbon monoxide alarms that they had purchased online, and the alarms had failed their test. We looked around and bought all the off-brand alarms we could find as well as some more reputable branded ones. We found three off-brand models that we rated as safety risks, and we contacted the online merchants, who agreed to pull those products from their sites. That’s a good example of how we can work together globally, identify common problems around the world, and change the marketplace.

Many other projects we work on globally are in electronics where the products are the same worldwide — tablet computers, printers, digital cameras — and we tip each other off about safety or product issues.

How does Consumer Reports look for and begin to test new products?

We’re always looking for new product categories that consumers might be interested in, scouring data to see if there are new risks emerging or products to focus on. We’re developing some new tools to get any accident data that we can, whether it’s injury or emergency room reports. We also look at sales volumes and publicly available market information to get a sense of what the zeitgeist is. We use all that information for our product safety agenda for the next fiscal year.

Once we decide on a particular category we might buy some of the products and do some research with consumers, investigate what claims are made for the products, what features they have, and how they are used. We would look at any standard that might exist. Then we start to develop our own testing protocol. If it’s the first time we are using the protocol, we view it as a pilot, and learn and adjust as we go along. We also speak to manufacturers, trade bodies, and experts in the field to get a sense of what we’ve not thought about and what we should be looking at.

We’ve recently tested hoverboards, and we’re gearing up to test drones. There’s a lot of interest in drones right now, and in this case, there have been several reports of consumer injuries, so that’s an issue we’re looking at in more detail.

If we can use the power of our comparative and scientific test ratings to highlight market failures, manufacturers and retailers tend to be very responsive to that, and for that we’re very grateful. We try to be as transparent and cooperative as we can with manufacturers and retailers so that if we say something, they know it’s really credible and based in science. We’re always willing to sit down and talk to a company about our testing and the results we found for their products. In many cases, we have been able to use our ratings and our reviews to quickly compel marketplace change.

That makes Consumer Reports a unique institution. Yes, we can recommend — if you’re in the market for a washing machine or a car or whatever else — the one that will best suit your needs. Also, if there’s a particular defect, we can work with a variety of stakeholders to protect consumers and improve the marketplace. We help consumers find the best product but also improve the market for all consumers. For us, it is about influencing both the individual and the system as a whole.

A good recent example is a bicycle helmet that we reported on because it failed one of our tests. We spoke with the manufacturer, which carried out some tests of its own, confirmed the problem, and decided to voluntarily recall the product, working with the CPSC [U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission]. This underscores how, when all of the different parts of Consumer Reports come together, we can have tremendous power in the marketplace in order to make things better for consumers.

 

Liam McCormack is vice president of research, testing, and insights at Consumer Reports. In that role, he oversees CR’s more than 140 product test engineers, test technicians, survey researchers, safety experts, and statisticians, and is responsible for the data and scientific information used for CR’s ratings and advocacy. McCormack has been at CR since 2008, and previously held positions with other consumer organizations.

 

Issue Month: 
May/June
Issue Year: 
2017
Industry Sectors: 
Consumer Products
Safety
Environment
Transportation
Medical
Quality