Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
CONSUMER : October 31, 1999
Of informed choices,safe buys
The author is Editor, Consumer Voice.
In a competitive market environment, testing of any manufactured product is essentially aimed at determining whether it conforms to the expected quality standards or not. While manufacturers may have their own quality control systems, there is a possibility of varying standards of quality prevailing in the market. This may lead to exploitation of consumers since the concept of a market economy has only now begun to take roots.
Manufacturers, who for long have thrived on gimmicks, lack of safety precautions and sub-standard products, face the consequence of being exposed, thanks to the introduction of comparative testing. This means the testing of branded consumer goods and services to provide consumers with unbiased information on the characteristics of these products thus enabling them to make informed choices. Comparative testing has the potential to be especially beneficial to consumers because they are still unaware of the importance of getting value for money. The consumer's choices continue to be driven by low procurement costs of the product, as low prices take precedence over quality.
Comparative testing means the subjecting of different products offered for the same purpose, the results of which tests provide consumers with unbiased information on the characteristics of these products. Choice of products for testing by an organisation depends upon their nationwide availability, market share and price range.
Comparative testing is an evolutionary process which provides information and strategy for choice among competitive brands. It can be viewed as a potent tool of protecting basic consumer rights like safety, choice, information, education and right to redress. This testing is aimed at identifying actual and not market generated consumer needs. It leads to strengthening of the informed choice aspect of a product and thereby provides maximum protection to consumer interests and rights. In the wake of slick advertising and multiple choices, such testing provides consumers with a lever to choose better and safer alternative products at competitive rates.
Comparative testing provides consumers with unbiased information and helps raise standards of manufactured goods and services by increasing public awareness and consequently, pressuring the manufacturers to improve product quality. Testing is crucial to the protection of consumer rights for it serves as a powerful link between the consumers, the government and the manufacturers. It brings the consumer to the center-stage of product manufacturing and selling, thus strengthening consumer position in the wider perspective of product conceptualisation, manufacturing and quality maintenance.
Unlike their western counterparts, consumers in India know little about comparative testing. The government chiefly undertakes product testing to ascertain the quality of an existing or a new product. In some cases, testing is done to see if the product conforms to relevant standards, in case the product has been granted certain marks like the ISI, AGMARK or Ecomark.
The market or the industry usually carries out comprehensive product testing before launching the product in the market. Extensive tests are carried out to judge the cost-effectiveness and viability of introducing a brand. Neither the government nor the industry provides consumers with information pertaining to quality vis-a-vis other competitive products. The process of product testing is not specifically consumer-oriented as standardisation and quality certification are not done on a competitive basis. Product testing tends to rate a product in isolation, not bringing in focus other products of similar nature claiming to offer similar or better characteristics. In this regard comparative testing supplies consumers with more holistic and meaningful information. Competitive products are not only tested for individual traits but are also subjected to comparative testing. They are rated for various aspects in relation to other similar products and thus comparative testing results offer the consumer the choice to decide the safest buy from an entire gamut of similar products.
With India liberalising its economy in 1991, globalisation truly came to the market and household. It offered consumers access to international quality products thus giving local manufacturers a run for their money. There came into existence a level-playing field. Competition grew and with it powerful advertising techniques. But multiple choices call for better standardisation and better ways to ascertain quality. It is in this context that comparative testing comes to the fore as the most reliable way of judging products' quality and in the process, empowering consumers.
The automobile sector, for one, saw largescale entry of foreign brands. This made the Indian giant Maruti spruce up its act and its prices nose-dived. To ascertain the authenticity of claims to better quality and safety, VOICE, a Delhi based Non Government Organisation carried car crash test reports conducted by Euro NCAP( European New Car Assessment Programme) through an MoU signed with the UK based ICRT. The aim was to judge the performance of international car brands. Popular brands like Honda Civic, Mitsubishi Lancer, Opel Astra and Ford Escort were tested. Their safety performance in terms of front and side impact, pedestrian rating and child safety was assessed. Such comparative testing gives the consumers important insight into the true worth of a product.
International comparative testing predominantly pertains to western standards where high benchmarks are set for product quality. Germany, the Netherlands and the UK are just some of the European nations where comparative testing is intrinsic to the production processes. The Consumers' Union of the U.S., the Consumers Association of UK and Australia publish test reports and disseminate information on a monthly basis. They are supported by millions of subscribers across their countries and have state-of-the-art testing laboratories and publication offices to cope with the consumer demand for almost daily information about routine purchases ranging from food items of day to day consumption, to cars.
This can be attributed to the fact that consumer organisations hold influential positions in society. Educated consumers invariably refer to comparative testing reports to make informed choices about safe buys. With the process of comparative testing, consumer education and awareness have touched unprecedented levels in these countries. Issues ranging from school education to health services, to the environmental impact of consumption and production patterns have come within the purview of these tests. Testing equips consumer organisations to engage with government and policy makers to constantly review their policies and reorganise their approach and functioning to become increasingly consumer oriented. This has simultaneously opened the issue of consumer responsibility. The earlier divide and rule principle at work among the market strategists has become redundant in a situation where the consumer/ citizen/ voter divisions have or are collapsing to allow the consumer to stand tall and be counted. Political processes are now increasingly linked to meeting consumer demands for accountability and transparency across an entire range of goods and services. Similar pressure for ethical practices are mounting on the market forces.
Comparative testing's history can be traced back to 1988, when support was extended to comparative testing projects in India by Stiftung Warentest, Berlin. Following this, the government appointed the Sathi Nair Committee to evaluate the benefits of comparative testing. Since then, some NGOs like VOICE in Delhi, CERC in Ahmedabad and CGSI in Bombay have undertaken comparative testing of products independently.
Comparative testing is aimed at relocating the consumer in the midst of a fast changing volatile market scenario, where choices seem to be booming while quality and standards fall by the wayside. Competition among the globally established brands of consumer products and a dynamic domestic market confuse the scenario further. A very price-conscious consumer is hard put to choose between what the multinational companies have to offer in the name of quality, guarantee and after sales service and what the grey markets promise to deliver at half the price and the age old method of providing personal guarantees as well as service. This is specially true of the spiralling computer market. The brand market getting wise to the specialities of the Indian market has unleashed a competitive price war amongst themselves, thus sending the grey market crashing. Consumer anxieties however continue when maintenance of quality by the brand market for the Indian consumer is put into question. It is by now an accepted reality that global brands follow a dual policy of providing up-market products and sales services to the Northern markets whereas India and other developing countries get sub-standard goods and obsolete technologies.
Comparative testing has its task cut out in such a situation. It is through its survey and testing procedure that comparative testing can set to rest a vast deal of confusion in the market as well as in the minds of the consumers.
In a competitive market environment, NGOs act as an effective check-point in stemming exploitation of the consumers. NGOs are in direct contact with the consumers thus representing their concerns. They help in establishing vital links among the industry, the government and the consumers. Also the comparative testing carried out by NGOs, apart from that carried out by regulatory authorities, is viewed as most reliable and unprejudiced by the consumers. Non government organisations sometimes are also instrumental in bringing to light defective products and in helping recall them. A recent example is that of the Coca Cola scare in Belgium and France where the company had to recall its beverage when a hundred people fell ill after having consumed contaminated cola. The company immediately withdrew its product because of strict government regulations and pressure of consumer unions.
Also, recently, France tightened its norms regarding use of chemicals in toys after suspicions were raised about their being toxic. The change was brought about by environment pressure groups which had been pushing for stricter controls.
Closer home, one feels that similar movements and comparative testing need to be intensified in the wake of the rampant food adulteration and defective products. The recent mustard oil contamination and synthetic milk production in India bear testimony to the fact. Comparative testing brings equality, security and transparency to the competitive market environment where the consumer is faced with the prospect of myriad choices. VOICE has made pioneering efforts in the field of comparative testing. Dry cell Zinc chloride and Alkaline batteries, water filters, Iodized salts and mineral water are just some of the products tested. Out of 12 brands of mineral water tested by VOICE, only four brands were found fit to be called actual mineral water as only those fulfilled all required parameters.
NGOs are often faced with difficult situations where financial and accessibility constraints hamper comparative testing. NGOs in India, do not have access to state-of-the-art laboratories or adequate funds to carry out large scale comparative testing. Yet, NGOs like VOICE have managed to surmount such difficulties and make the best of available opportunities by carrying out comparative testing in independent laboratories identified for specific tests.
Consumers can play a vital role in formulation and implementation of standards. If we go by the example of our western counterparts, consumers have already taken on the responsibility of acting as watchdogs. Empowerment of consumers has led to high awareness levels. This change has been brought about by consumer empowerment techniques like comparative testing and data collection and dissemination sources. comparative testing has indeed triggered a process whereby consumers can now influence and bend the market to their demands and their demands can force a review of production processes as well as redress mechanisms.
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