Sounds like a cool job: get paid, go shopping, and get paid to go shopping. Ten ladies and gentlemen have such a job: they are shoppers at stiftung warentest. Their errands are an essential point for the preparation programs. But it takes between six and twelve months before the buyers can go out, laboratories are commissioned to carry out tests, and the results are published in the test booklets or on the stiftung warentest website.
Advisory board decides on program
"before the examinations, an advisory board with representatives of suppliers, consumers and independent institutions will discuss the market situation and the examination program, determine the program and send it to the suppliers", explains holger brackemann, head of investigations at the stiftung warentest foundation in berlin. The review program will be based on a "comprehensive approach that includes the product characteristics relevant to the consumer."
Then a product selection is made for each test. Among other things, the importance on the market, technical features and the price play a role here. Now shoppers are allowed to anonymously buy photos, food or running shoes anywhere in germany. In addition to product tests, quick tests (purchase in the morning, test result online in the evening), service and financial service tests are carried out. Since 2004, the foundation has also been scrutinizing the social responsibility of manufacturers in CSR (corporate social responsibility) tests and evaluating them by visiting companies in china, pakistan and india, for example.
The normal tests are commissioned from over 100 independent testing institutes (one to three laboratories per test) in germany. Their names are kept secret so that suppliers don't get the idea of trying to influence the test results. The test criteria – for devices usually handling, durability, environment and safety – are set by the stiftung warentest's scientifically qualified project managers, who also evaluate the results and assign the grades. "Evaluation is based on scientific criteria", says brackemann. "This often goes further than the legal or normative requirements."
Endurance tests abroad
Many tests are carried out with foreign partners: in order to benefit from the expertise of all international consumer protection networks as well as laboratories in 26 countries, but also to save costs. Long-term testing of washing machines, for example, was unthinkable in germany because of the high cost of energy and water.
In addition, the examinations often involve test subjects. They hand in their wash for test washing or smear skin cream on their faces. They take out health insurance policies abroad, travel to the other side of the world and claim the benefits indicated. Or they are trained to taste the cork in wine and use this knowledge to test the wine, they run with running shoes over hill and dale and so on and so forth.
Everything must be right
So-called verifiers internally check the evaluation and publication of the test results, articles and graphics. "Every word, every number must be right", says anita stocker, editor-in-chief of test. In parallel, suppliers receive objective measurement results on their product with the opportunity to make comments. The test reports are then written in topic teams, each with a project manager and an editor. These teams are an essential part of the foundation: 90 of 280 employees are involved there.
Suppliers react differently
after the publication, the bidders can inspect the appraisals or buy back test samples. "Then you can see for yourself where and why the running shoe is broken, for example, says brackemann. The reactions of the manufacturers are quite different. "Many use the foundation's testing program as a guide for their own developments", brackemann explains. Some criticize the tests because they go beyond the legal requirements.
Average grade 2.4
The most frequent ratings are "poor" (food) and "bad good". The average value across all products is 2.4." However, products have often been improved by a poor test result. Brackemann considers it a success for the foundation that children's car seats now also have side impact protection and that softeners have largely disappeared from food brines. Brackemann is also taking up the cause of a ban on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (pahs), which is expected in 2015. The discussion about this harmful plastic was triggered by a test of hammers in whose handles pahs were found in 2005.
Sometimes, after the announcement of the test results, there are also warnings, letters from lawyers and lawsuits (about six a year) "mostly from the food sector", says brackemann. After all, a bad test result can cause considerable losses for manufacturers and entrepreneurs. So far, however, the foundation has not yet been legally ordered to pay damages.