Consumer Reports, best known for its product testing and independence, recently moved gingerly to offer its Web site subscribers not only recommendations on what to buy but also guidance on where to buy it.
Launched as a pilot program in a broader Web site redesign, the move brings the magazine into sensitive territory. For now, the endeavor is limited to digital cameras, described by the organization as a "heavily trafficked" area that "typically peaks during the holiday season."
The Yonkers-based magazine, published by the nonprofit Consumers Union, accepts no advertising and reports on product testing and service evaluations by its staff, in addition to acting as advocates for consumers. But since Oct. 8, ConsumerReports.org has offered its paid Web subscribers a link to retailer customer service ratings and price information compiled for it by the for-profit BizRate.com. By clicking onto that "Shop Online" listing from BizRate, subscribers then can go onto retailers' sites to "buy now." The service "seems both a very useful thing and something that we could not do on our own" because of limited resources, said Joel Gurin, executive vice president of Consumers Union.
An explanation greets visitors to "Shop Online," saying ConsumerReports.org worked with BizRate on a "custom version of its shopping portal." Disclaimers appear, too. The organization does not endorse the retailers, has "no relationship" with them and receives no payment from BizRate. (In an interview BizRate chief executive Chuck Davis said his privately held company receives payments from some retailers for referrals and research.)
Kelly McBride, who teaches ethics to journalists at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., sees some risk if consumers blame a bad retail experience on Consumer Reports. "I don't think it's unethical to take that risk," she said, "but what you are risking is your credibility." John Schmitt, who teaches media ethics at Texas State University in San Marcos, wondered why Consumer Reports would help lead subscribers to retailers it does not investigate. He asked, "Why potentially tarnish your image?"
The Shop Online feature, if continued and expanded, could give potential Web subscribers another reason to sign up for an important revenue producer in an increasingly multimedia operation. Like many media companies, Consumers Union is going beyond its core, through the Web, television and specialized publications - a drive the organization cited as a partial explanation for a recent management shake-up that included the departure of its editorial director. A memo to the staff said that "editorial" and "publishing" must be partners in "shaping the business strategy for our publications."
Consumer Reports magazine circulation, about 5 million in 1990, "has held steady at about 4 million for the past three fiscal years," according to Consumers Union spokeswoman Linda Wagner. The Web site, started in 1997, has 1.2 million subscribers, about 80 percent annual subscriptions, the remainder monthly. The magazine generated revenue of about $86 million in the 12 months ending May 31, the Web site about $30.5 million.
One media observer sees value in the new service. "This makes good sense to me," said Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. "One of the problems with Consumer Reports is you see a product that they say is the best one. Then you have to go out and find it, and finding it can be difficult." Still, Consumers Union's reputation is its franchise. So, while Jones expressed confidence in the organization, he said, "It has to be very careful."
"We know it is an unusual thing for us to do," said Gurin. "We can't guarantee it to the same Nth degree that we do our product testing. Our hope is that people will understand that and see it as a benefit."
Gurin considers it unlikely subscribers will have a bad experience with the retailers. Merchants appear on the site, which has BizRate and ConsumerReports.org's logos, if Biz- Rate ranks them outstanding or good in on-time delivery, customer support, "products met expectations" and "would shop here again." Rankings are based on customer surveys at and after purchase or, for retailers that don't participate, on BizRate buyer panels, said BizRate's Davis, under criteria more stringent than those BizRate uses for its own site. Not every retailer is included in the evaluations.
If Consumers Union decides to expand the Shop Online offering, I'd suggest it give more information on the service. I had questions. Here's one: Why did the Shop Online site listing for one camera say Amazon.com is "not customer certified," when it has "2500+ reviews" and outstanding rankings in two of four categories, while ShopperWiz.com is "customer certified" with just "100+" reviews and an outstanding ranking in one of the categories. You have to click on a blue ribbon symbol to find out what customer certified means. BizRate's Davis said a company not participating in its customer survey program is designated "not customer certified."
I had other questions raised by the pricing data but for now a suggestion: Before any expansion of the program, let Consumers Union's staff give it another look, acting as users, and write a critique. After all, isn't testing what Consumer Reports does best?
Checking Out The Shopping Site
Want to check out ConsumerReports.org's Shop Online service? You can test the guide compiled by BizRate.com for the Web arm of Consumers Union, now limited to digital cameras, by subscribing to ConsumerReports.org for a month, but mark the calendar.
Subscribers can put the $4.95 monthly charge on a credit card, and renewals are automatic unless canceled, with no refunds for partial months. Visitors to ConsumerReports.org have free access to some information including reviews of some "online commerce sites," news of recalls and advice on a variety of subjects. Paid subscribers can receive information that includes product ratings, service recommendations and access to the latest issue of Consumer Reports, published by Consumers Union, and four years of past reports.