INSIDE

What went right (or wrong)?
It first appeared in the spring of 1939, when Consumer Reports was barely three years old. The CU Questionnaire (as it was then called) asked CR members for help in improving the content of the magazine and assuring the relevance of its mission. Despite budgetary constraints and a still-evolving identity, that two-page document looked to the future and asked readers about their shopping habits, what products and services they would like to see reviewed, and how technical the magazine’s reports should be.

Now, almost 80 years later, the Annual Questionnaire (or AQ, as it's now called) is still collecting data and playing an indispensable role in the information Consumer Reports provides to its more than seven million subscribers. With almost 800,000 respondents annually, and more than one million submissions on automobile reliability, it’s quite possible that only the U.S. census has a wider reach.

As you would expect, Consumer Reports has been at the forefront of reporting and evaluating the effects that societal changes, marketplace innovations, and new technologies have on consumers. Throughout its history, the survey has reflected that. The first Automobile Reliability survey appeared in 1954; telephone calls were added as a survey mechanism in 1974; questions about computer usage debuted in 1983; and in the late 1990s we asked you about your encounters with lawyers, retail stores, airlines, and HMOs.

The latest survey innovation is taking place this year—the AQ will change from a once-a-year format to more concise quarterly questionnaires that will include more than 50 topics. These more frequent tallies will improve communication with our readers and consistently provide more up-to-date information. We are fortunate that Consumer Reports subscribers can be characterized as “good citizens,” trustworthy and conscientious advocates who are willing to take the time to complete a survey that will add valuable firsthand information to our research and help others choose the best—and avoid the worst—products and services.

Steve Witten, the Director of Survey Research, and his team approach their job with scientific rigor and a keen understanding of human psychology and behavior. That approach is essential when considering the ultimate function of the survey, which hasn’t changed since 1939: “to improve the Reports.” Without the participation of so many loyal CR supporters, that would be next to impossible. In the Consumer Reports tradition of objectivity, the Questionnaires seek, not your opinion, but rather your quantifiable experience with and considered judgment of products and services. Your participation and responses really matter.

Your experiences with product performance and repairs provide essential data that help us determine the reliability of a brand or a product over its lifespan. That chronicle of durability enhances our technical work and expert observations with real and pertinent user information. And all those experiences are pooled and summarized in Reliability Ratings that we publish along with our product reviews.

We also count on you to tell us how you actually use products. Your observations about good and bad features not only speak to the relative value of a product but also help us set test protocols that can simulate real-world use. That makes our lab tests more like real life, and enriches our evaluations. While product specifications, technological features and innovations may be an indicator of how useful a product might be, the experiences of real users help us publish a more complete evaluation.

Most services, of course, can’t be tested in a lab, and what you have to say about those gives us the means to provide credible ratings. Cell-phone carriers, hotels, supermarkets, and Internet providers are just some of the categories where your input helps our editors and writers with their research and enables them to report real-world experience.

Our aim at Consumer Reports is not to tell you what to buy but instead to provide an objective assessment that helps you to determine which product is best suited to your needs and budget. So whether you’re looking for cutting-edge technology or an inexpensive and reliable workhorse, the information we get from our surveys helps you make a decision by providing an added dimension to the testing process.

In a very real sense, the steady evolution of the CU Questionnaire over the years has allowed it to be an interface between Consumer Reports subscribers and our editorial and testing coverage. It has given a voice to any consumer who cares to participate in a meaningful dialogue with our experts, and it has given our experts the opportunity to better understand how the products they test perform in the real world.

Subscribers who have been receiving the CR Questionnaire through the mail can sign up to receive the electronic version by filling out the form at ConsumerReports.org/AQenroll.


Consumer Inight How Are We Doing?
Every month the Consumer Insight team surveys thousands of Consumer Reports subscribers about their satisfaction with our products. That feedback helps us understand what consumers are looking for and provides a forum for our customers to say what they think. Their comments on print and online content tell us what worked for them and what fell short of their expectations. Additionally, the uncensored commentary we hear from subscribers and non-subscribers alike in frequently held focus groups helps guide our work. So don’t be surprised if we contact you for your insights about how we are doing and what improvements you’d like to see.


Hot off the [assembled in-house-tested-for-evenniness-rated-for-you] grill
Sometime this summer, when evening falls well after the 6 o’clock news, you may be flipping dinner on your new gas grill. Here at Consumer Reports, we can’t wait that long to turn ours on. We buy and test gas grills in the dead of winter, so you can have ratings, buying advice, and maintenance tips in hand when you need them. (Our full report will be in the June issue, available early May, and on ConsumerReports.org in late April.)

Testing takes a while, and we want to be ready for your cookout, so to get grills in the winter we shop big box stores and order online. (We buy everything we test at retail, just as you do, so there’s no chance that a manufacturer will send us a souped-up model.)

We test around 40 gas grills a year and assemble almost every one, and we have plenty of experience. The occasional model challenges our experts (some instructions are just pictures, but, as one tester puts it, “We don’t take the cursing factor into account” in our ratings.

A good grill will distribute the heat evenly across the cooking surface, so we use a matrix of temperature sensors called thermocouples to take measurements in numerous spots. We log how fast each grill preheats, how well it performs when some burners are on and some off, and what convenience features it has.

And we test for safety. Beneath all the shiny surfaces and oh-wow features, this is a box of fire. So we do a safety check on every gas grill, based on an industry standard, to see whether the burners go out when the lid is dropped from a height of about 6 inches above the closed position. If the burners do go out, a buildup of gas inside could burst into flames when you relight the grill.

Some of the most tempting grilled foods are also the most treacherous; fat drippings can flare up and burn the cook. So using lard, we do a “flare-up” test to see which grills have better designs that channel the fat safely away from the burners. We note the ones that perform best in that test in our ratings. Remember, cleaning your grill isn't just to make it look pretty; removing pooled grease and doing regular maintenance can mean the difference between a feast and a fire.

As you can imagine, things can get interesting when you run 40 grills through their paces indoors. Years ago, in our headquarters in Yonkers, N.Y., an alarm in the grill lab triggered an evacuation of the building. The local fire fighters arrived fast, as they always do, and, since testing had to be halted for the day, left very happily bearing a tray of steaks to tuck into back at the firehouse.


Accessorize!
Last summer we tested the BakerStone Pizza Oven Box. It’s weighty (27 pounds) and pricey (upwards of $100), but our in-house pizza expert—he comes from a family of restaurateurs—was impressed with the crust and the mere four minutes it took to bake each of the 12 pizzas in rapid succession.

For those of you whose least-favorite chore is cleaning the grill, we tested the Grillbot. We set the automatic grill-cleaning robot to work in a closed grill equipped with a camera. It did an OK job on the tops of the grates, but you’ll still need to do some scrubbing to get them thoroughly clean. Fair warning: it can sound like a frenzied squirrel banging around inside the closed grill, so be prepared for odd looks from the neighbors.


THE CRAZY, HECTIC LIFE OF A CONSUMER
No matter what the day or month, your support helps Consumer Reports test products and advocate for you. We want to let you know we've recently launched Consumer Champions a new giving circle. These donors make a dedicated gift each month to provide us with the funds we need to help consumers all year 'round. Visit
ConsumerReports.org/crchampion to learn more about our Consumer Champions program and how you can enhance your support to make the marketplace better for all consumers. (It's easy, we promise.)
January You’ve made a resolution to get fit. (No, you’re serious this time.) Now which elliptical or treadmill should you buy?
February You want to make your beloved’s heart sing. Which wireless speakers would be the perfect gift? Everybody hum a little tune.
March Never again will you watch March Madness at your cousin’s house. (You have your reasons.) Is that 65-inch TV that’s on sale a good buy?
April Ah, spring is in the air. Your old lawn mower has gone kaput. You need a new one, fast. This year, you’ve decided the kids will take over this chore.
May Maybe your marvelous mom would like a new smartphone. What’s the best one for her? (And yes, get her a card too.)
June School’s out and the kids are here, there, and everywhere on their bicycles. Did any bike helmet fail our tests?
July Summer! You want to capture all your happy vacation moments. Did somebody say “digital camera?”
August A road trip to visit relatives. The car is packed and now you have to program the GPS and pair up your phone. Yikes!
September Last BBQ of the summer. Luckily, you bought that grill that CR rated so highly. Fire it up and throw on some peppers.
October You found the scariest decorations to hang on the porch. Now which is better, a regular old power strip or one with a timer?
November OK, maybe the pie crust won't be from scratch, but it will bake up perfectly in that top-rated oven.
December You need the ultimate shopping guide. You’re in luck; CR has one for you. It’s good to know there’s help when you need it, even with gift giving.
Your calendar may not be quite this packed, but whenever you have to decide on a product or service, Consumer Reports wants to help you make the best choice for your lifestyle and your wallet. We're grateful for your support.