The Checkout

Consumers' Checkbook: Don't Leave Home Without It

For years, one of my most favorite consumer publications has been Washington Consumers' Checkbook. It's where I always go to check on the best car-repair shops, plumbers, furniture stores, doctors, roofers, cobblers, etc. You name the field, Checkbook has price and quality ratings for the companies. And as best I can remember, the ratings have been accurate--they either reflected the experience I had already received or the treatment I was about to get after I used a company suggested by Checkbook. What's more, Checkbook included tons of valuable tips on how to shop, whether I was looking for insurance, funeral services or cheap long-distance telephone services.

Checkbook is still around; the print version is published semi-annually and the online version is, of course, available 24/7 for consumers willing to pay $34 for a two-year subscription. (That covers online access as well as the print version). What's more, Checkbook's ratings are no longer confined only to the D.C. area. It now provides a similarly valuable service for consumers in Boston, Chicago, the Delaware Valley, Puget Sound, San Francisco/Oakland/San Jose and the Twin Cities.

What is no longer around though is Checkbook's BARGAINS newsletter, which was printed twice a year. The newsletter listed prices charged by local stores for such popular big-ticket purchases as refrigerators, TVs, tires and chain saws. This was only for D.C.-area subscribers and served as a handy shopping tool. But Checkbook recently decided to stop publishing the 22-year-old BARGAINS. Its reasons, listed in the first issue of Update (the replacement for BARGAINS), explain a lot about today's retail market--for better and for worse:

* "The number of independent retailers--the sources of the BARGAINS prices that consistently beat the prices of the chains and big-box stores for appliances, electronics, tires and other products--has continued to decline; we just don't have enough competitors in most categories to make the BARGAINS price-competition model work.

* "Manufacturers have increased their efforts to restrict retail price competition (which the manufacturers' big-chain retail outlets don't like). The most common version of this restriction is "minimum advertised price" policies; stores that advertise too low get punished with loss of supply, loss of manufacturer-provided advertising subsidies, or some other penalty.

* "The Internet has become the way to get the best prices--better prices than BARGAINS retailers can match--for many products that are easily shipped."

Even so, Checkbook is now developing an online version of BARGAINS for some specific products that most of us want to buy locally, such as major appliances and large TVs.

No matter how you slice it, Checkbook is still a good deal.

By  |  June 14, 2006; 8:30 AM ET Consumer Tips
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Comments

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Manufacturers have increased their efforts to restrict retail price competition (which the manufacturers' big-chain retail outlets don't like). The most common version of this restriction is "minimum advertised price" policies; stores that advertise too low get punished with loss of supply, loss of manufacturer-provided advertising subsidies, or some other penalty.

THIS IS ILLEGAL AND HAS BEEN FOR DECADES.

Posted by: Steve | June 14, 2006 10:08 AM

I am pleased to see you profiling Checkbook -- we LOVE this product, and I want enough people to subscribe to ensure its continued longevity.

Before making nearly any major purchase, and certainly before doing any sort of home repair or auto work, we always consult Checkbook (print or the online forum) to narrow down the places we'll consider getting quotes from. We let companies know that's how we found them, and we let them know that we'll be reporting on our experiences with them right back to Checkbook. I think the combination has definitely helped us get better service from most companies.

Posted by: KS | June 14, 2006 10:34 AM

I haven't used the BARGAINS newsletter, because I haven't needed to buy appliances for quite a while. However, the recommendations for services I found on the Comsumers Checkbook website have been excellent. I've been pleased with the tree service, plumber and appliance repairman that I recently needed. Well worth the subscription.

Posted by: WMA | June 14, 2006 11:34 AM

Keep in mind that the online subscription only allows you access to the current and subsequent issues. It does not allow access to the vast library of previous issues of the Checkbook. So if you're looking for a plumber, and Checkbook rated them in the last issue before you subscribed, you're out of luck. You'll have to go to the library to look at past issues or wait until they're rated again. Which is where I'm off to to look for windows installers, since they were rated before I subscribed.

Posted by: trixie | June 14, 2006 12:17 PM

As I started to read this article, I wondered, "This article seems like an ad for Washington Consumers' Checkbook." Is it? It seems like one.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 14, 2006 12:56 PM

Steve - please cite the section in the law that restricted retail price competition by manufacturers is illegal.

Manufactures typically have different price levels depending upon the volume of business a retail store does (Volume Price Agreements are usually required). For example, say the retail price for an item is $100 and that the sellers price for that item is $70 (call this Price Level #1). But, if the seller executes a Volume Pricing Agreement to buy a certain number during certain time period (usually a year), the price would be $55 (Price Level #2). Therefore, the manufactuer in this scenario has two levels of pricing.
To make sure that sellers who buy at Price Level #1 ($70) can still sell their item at a reasonable profit (otherwise, why would the seller even want to sell the items), the manufacture may set a minimum retail priced of $85. That would keep the high volume sellers, who buy an item at Price Level #2, from selling the item at or below the Price Level #1.

What restricted retail pricing does is allow the sellers at Price Level #1 (usually the smaller stores that don't have the means to buy in bulk like the larger sellers) to sell an item at a profit. If there wasn't restricted retail pricing a large, aggressive seller could undercut all other seller's prices, forcing the other sellers to drop the item from their shelves or loose money and possibly go out of business (i.e. the airline fare wars are like this). Then consumers would only have one choice as to where to purchase a particular item. A manufacturer that uses restricted retail pricing is trying to maintain a large seller base so that it's product is in many stores rather than a few large ones.

Posted by: ABH | June 14, 2006 1:17 PM

There at least used to be an option for Checkbook subscribers to have access to the entire library of articles during their subscription. I think it was something like a $25 one-time upgrade, and it still works on my account, although I can't find an option now to do this upgrade, perhaps because I've already done it.

Posted by: Jacob | June 15, 2006 10:43 AM

I recently bought a subscription to checkbook and bought the full archive at the time I placed my order. There is so much information there I can't imagine not having it. They seem to blend the best of all worlds, expert ratings that seem to have some basis in fact and subscriber comments that provide a little more personal information. I have to say their health information also blows me away. If I ever need a good doctor, this seems to be the place to look. One commenter said the article seemd like an ad. From my experience so far, it seems pretty accurate.

Posted by: Sandy | July 20, 2006 2:23 PM

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