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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 October 2007, 15:12 GMT 16:12 UK
Inside the Which? lab
Room inside the Which? lab

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Consumer watchdog Which? has advised Britons on buying anything from bird-box cameras to paper dresses, toy wheelbarrows to deodorants. On the eve of its 50th birthday, what's it like behind the scenes at its product testing lab?

Poor Henry. A microphone stuck in one ear, a loudspeaker in the mouth and a mobile phone clamped to his face.

More than 10 years of "head and torso simulating" seems a thankless task.

Principal scientist
Henry takes a break, helped by veteran tester Roy Brooker
But it has benefits that gadget-freaks would drool over, such as listening to some of the best mobile phones and iPods on the market.

The story behind Which? is one that reflects the country's journey from a post-war Britain getting to grips with consumerism to a nation of shopping addicts. Its first edition on 7 October 1957 rated cake mixes and kettles; its latest, plasma televisions and MP3 players.

The not-for-profit magazine, owned by what used to be called the Consumers' Association, has become something of a best-buy Bible for shoppers and an occasional headache for retailers and manufacturers.

Rucksack on dummy

Much of the work by Henry and other test dummies happens in a humble, red-brick building on an industrial estate in Milton Keynes, carried out by Intertek Research on behalf of the association.

Inside, it resembles a huge warehouse-cum-workshop, with a vast amount of electronic and white goods.

All the doors are pink and behind each lies a room of special significance - a battery testing room, a rainfall room (for lawnmowers or waterproof MP3 players), a humid room (fridges) and an environmental room (washing machines).

Dried spinach

There is also a room where lawnmowers have ball bearings fired into them from below - luckily this pink door remains firmly closed and the windows look reinforced.

First edition of Which? in October 1957
The first edition warns 'Don't empty a kettle while it's switched on'
Rigs testing anything from rucksacks (see video, above) to office stools are purpose-built in a workshop.

Foods such as spinach are dried on to plates before going into dishwashers; a rotating drum drops mobile phones and remote controls 50cm to test their durability.

The man who devises the performance tests is principal scientist Roy Brooker, who has done such work for 27 years.

"When it comes to this technology it's important to have someone with experience. The research team in London is quite young, which is good for a magazine but it's important to have someone on the team who can say 'I've seen this before.'

Founded by Michael Young, who later set up Open University
Its campaign for seat belts to be fitted in new cars led to a change in the law in 1983
A reindeer ate two shirts in Lapland while they were being tested for non-drip-drying
Which? researchers put their own homes up for sale to test estate agents
Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst helped to test footballs in 1982
14,000 Best Buys awarded, with Panasonic the top recipient
Geoffrey Howe chose the Which? Good Food Guide on Desert Island Discs
"It's easy to be taken in by the advertising and the claims so it's important to be able to tell what's worth testing and what's not."

Consumers can be fooled into believing something is new, he said, while editors can get excited about a 'new' feature but it could just be a gimmick or a minor improvement.

The products are picked by Which? researchers and must be available on the high street, while the brands are decided by market share. They are bought in the normal way and delivered to the Milton Keynes lab with the brand names concealed.

Many of the items tested there are electronic such as televisions or hi-fi systems, and the first job is to make an inventory of the features and check the technical measurements.

Dog eats remote

A panel of five people listens to or watches the output and rates it from one to 10 on different aspects. The panel's findings are evaluated by a statistician.

The last part of testing electronics is usability, done by setting up various scenarios such as whether the item would be operational if the remote control was eaten by the dog.

Although televisions, MP3 players and white goods are commonly tested, sometimes items come along that are outside Mr Brooker's usual purview, such as bird-box cameras. Fortunately an ornithologist on the staff could advise (filming a real bird was ruled out early on).

Technologist Geoff West
Faulty products are also tested
Evaluating the best electronic goods for years would qualify Mr Brooker to have a living room packed with gadgets of supreme quality. But he says the television he bought 10 years ago was so good that it's still going strong and he can't justify getting an upgrade.

"But I'm tempted by some of the latest gadgets we test, like the internet radio. This is a little stand-alone radio with a wi-fi receiver which downloads radio stations as long as you have a wi-fi connection. It asks what country you want to go to.

"There are about 10,000 stations in the UK - all the local BBC stations, the BBC's Listen Again services, Radio Caroline, Radio Luxembourg."

Despite cherishing its reputation for independence, there have been times when Which? has come under criticism.

The magazine is not available on the shelf, only by subscription, and it uses "inertia selling" which relies on new customers signing up for three months and then remembering to cancel if unsatisfied.

Which? has been extremely significant over the years but I'm not sure it's as significant now as it used to be
Donald McFetridge
Retail and business lecturer
There was also the occasional and controversial foray into the commercial world when it sees a gap in the market that would benefit consumers. A credit card it introduced was criticised as inappropriate and was withdrawn, but it still has an internet service.

Past promotional campaigns which used junk mail and prize draws also drew accusations of compromising its independence, so it now limits itself to newspaper advertising.

In response, a spokeswoman for the magazine says everything is done to ensure impartiality is maintained. "The credit card was a short-lived venture and not repeated. We don't take samples, we pay for every single product and there is no advertising. Our expertise is providing information and enabling people in that way."

The savings made from cutting out the middle man go into the intense research that its competitors can't offer, she adds, and subscription numbers are increasing at a time when many newspapers and magazines are seeing falling readership.

Donald McFetridge, head of retail studies at University of Ulster, says: "Which? has been extremely significant over the years but I'm not sure it's as significant now as it used to be. There are so many options for consumers - so many programmes, price comparison websites and better product knowledge.

People watching televisions
A panel assesses the quality
"Maybe it's past its sell-by date. It's not something I look at as much as I used to. Also, there are more discerning and discriminating customers out there, demanding product knowledge from sales staff, especially in electronics and white goods."

Being subscription-only limits access and could be viewed as anti-consumer, he said. And shoppers are becoming too time-poor and cash-rich to sit down with a copy of the magazine and do the research.

But despite the change in consumer habits, a million subscribers and a strong voice in the media suggest Henry has a few years left in him yet.

Below are a selection of your comments.

Which is great. Independence is paramount. Sadly, it's not something I would subscribe to, as I only need to consult this kind of publication on the odd occasion when looking for a specific purchase. As David of Birmingham points out - a web based subscription would be more in line with today's market. However - I tend to do my research for free these days, just by looking at internet reviews. These can be unreliable, and do not benefit from the extensive research done at Which, but they're real life people, using real life products, with no axe to grind, and just sharing information. I would hate to see Which go out of business, but I'm afraid I'm not likely to be contributing to their future success.
Nic, London

Thanks for bring back some very happy memories. I worked at Which? in the early l960's and they were exciting times. One of the best jobs I ever had - everyone had a sort of pioneer spirit - breaking new ground. I am happy to report that Consumer Reports is alive and well here in the USA with additional reports on Money & Health.
Frances Younger (nee Dickson), Arroyo Grande, California/USA

'Independent' advice - that's the key - salesmen generally sell. I usually research any significant purchases and I would always consult 'Which'.
Kris Orange, Preston UK

I have looked subscribing to Which a couple of times but really hate the method of signing up for something when it is not made clear how much if will actually cost after the free period - which seems laughably contrary to the whole idea of Which. If things were clearer and they offered a web-only subscription then I might be interested.
David, Birmingham

I love Which! I always used to read my dad's copies when I was growing up, and now he buys me a subscription every year for my birthday. It's the only magazine I get - and I read it cover to cover. There's always something of interest, even if you don't care about the particular products on test that month.
Flash Bristow, London, UK

With regards to buying consumer products. Spend £xx subscribing to Which, go and buy their best buy product that you need. Spend free time doing something else. Simple.
Jon Howse, Sheffield

One of our most reliable and trustworthy magazines here in the States is Consumer Reports. It's good to know that they have a conterpart in the UK with a million subscribers. That's an impressive number of educated consumers.
R Coleman, East Brunswick, NJ

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