What happens when Unclutterer is invited to tour Consumer Reports

During the last full week of June, I headed to Yonkers, New York, to a one-day conference at the Consumer Reports testing facilities. Consumers Union invited a group of about 25 bloggers to come together to talk about informed consumerism.

The intellectual in me believed that the sessions at the conference would be interesting (which they were), but it was the geek in me who really wanted to tour their testing operations. I imagined the building to be filled with pocket protector-wearing lab technicians blowing stuff up. In actuality, I only spotted one pocket protector, but I did get to see the remains of exploding grills and a lawn mower chop off a fake finger (hot dog on a stick). I loved every minute of the tour, which was about an hour and a half of our day in Yonkers.

I had lunch with Craig Newmark, the Craig of Craigslist, and discussed the impact of sites like his on the uncluttering movement. I posited that sites like Craigslist, Freecycle, and Ebay have made it easier for people to responsibly get rid of unwanted items. He agreed, and at the end of our 45 minute conversation I felt that I had garnered a new appreciation for these services and the way they bring people and stuff together.

I also greatly enjoyed Ben Popken’s presentation on customer service. Ben is the editor of the watchdog blog Consumerist, which monitors unfair business practices of companies selling products and services in the U.S. A lot of what he said will find its way indirectly into future Unclutterer posts. This presentation was recorded, and I hope to be able to provide a link to it for you in the coming days.

I’m a big fan of Consumer Reports and check it and other review sites before making most of my purchases. Being a smart consumer can take effort, but when you own few possessions, it’s important to focus on quality. Overall, I was glad to spend the day learning from others who share a similar philosophy on educated consumerism.

Now, for what you’ve been waiting for, an inside look at Consumer Reports

All of the glass surfaces throughout the building have the Consumer Reports rating circles etched into them. You never forget where you are:

One of our first stops on the tour was to the pure-sound chamber. There is no echo in this room, which allows technicians to measure the actual sound levels coming out of a device. After just five minutes in this room, I had a brief, but severe, headache:

While still in the stereo testing wing of the building, we went inside the “family room” where live subjects sit on a couch and listen to different stereo equipment. The curtain in this photograph is where the equipment is hidden so that test subjects aren’t influenced by brand names:

Our next stop on the tour was of the television testing facilities. Along the walls of this room are dozens of televisions broadcasting the same test images. This room is used for side-by-side comparison testings:

The kitchen lab does daily accuracy tests on all of the latest appliances to hit the U.S. market. The day we were there the team was testing ovens by recording the colors of cookies baked on different shelves in 10 ovens. The engineers use a color spectrometer to record the exact color of each cookie top and bottom:

Here are cookie bottoms baked in two ovens on two different shelves in their respective ovens. You can see that the oven on the left has a more consistent temperature throughout the unit than the oven on the right:

In the sensory experience lab, we were shown how the testers set up projects for blind taste testings. The dark squares in the middle of this picture are where food items are slid into the testing room on the other side of the wall. A red light illuminates the testing room so that test subjects aren’t influenced by the food’s appearance:

Learning the methods that are used in testings made me more comfortable with the data Consumer Reports publishes. Now, if only Underwriter’s Laboratory would invite me to visit their facilities! A geeky girl can dream, right?!

9 Comments for “What happens when Unclutterer is invited to tour Consumer Reports”

  1. posted by Geralin Thomas on

    Hey Erin,

    While you have covered the “geek” & “intellectual” aspects, the “Mrs. Kravitz” in me wants to know, did you meet any of the ShopSmart crowd? I love that publication!
    No Hype + No Ads + Just Great Buys ;)

  2. Profile photo of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @Geralin — All of the Consumer Reports bloggers/writers were there, so I’m sure that I met the people behind Shop Smart … but I don’t remember anyone exactly. I mostly sought out conversations with the editors of the CR sites and multi-media work since they have a more specific link to the type of work that I do. But, I agree, I love Shop Smart :)

  3. posted by Andrew Flusche on

    That is incredibly cool! Of course the guy in me wonders if anyone gets to eat the cookies after they record the test data. :)

  4. posted by Xerxes3rd on

    Those sound rooms are really odd- my college had one. It’s strange that there’s so much less pressure in them, and someone standing two feet away and talking sounds like they’re about 20 feet away. Interesting experience indeed!

  5. Profile photo of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @Andrew — The kitchen appliance testing crew sets out cookies, cakes and all of their edible “tests” for CR staffers after they’re finished recording the sample data. The main kitchen engineer said that her daughter believes she has the coolest job in the world since she gets to constantly be surrounded by cookies. I’ll be honest, it sounds like a nice perk! The grilling testers use rib eye steaks in their tests … I think that would be a yummy sample to try, too :)

  6. posted by C on

    I’ve been to the UL facility in Canada. The fire test lab is wicked!

  7. posted by Shalin on

    How awesome is that?!

    Oh, and regarding a no-echo (anechoic) chamber – I been in a couple and while I’ve never gotten a headache, I did feel a fit dizzy. Funny how important sound was for my balance…

    –Shalin

  8. posted by Louise on

    You’re running with some real A-listers, there. Thanks for sharing your experience at CR. Did you bring cookies back for the rest of us? :)

  9. posted by BJ Nemeth on

    I remember when Consumer’s Union was raising funds for their testing facility many, many years ago. Just hearing them describe what they were planning back then was awesome. It’s even cooler hearing a description from someone on the outside.

    Consumer’s Union (and their magazine, Consumer Reports) are near the top of my list of “Companies I Respect the Hell Out Of.”

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