What are your strategies for getting good value from consumer purchases?

So in the recent holidays, I shopped for many a thing for various gifts - and something occurred to me, as I was looking at the brands and options available; the paradox of the modern consumer is that there are no reliable quality signals any more.

There were a lot of brands I’d never heard of, and this was in areas like consumer electronics and small appliances and tools, where I’ve probably heard of all the brands worth hearing about by now.

My first thought was “These new brands are probably direct-to-consumer Chinese brands, aka cheap chinese crap formerly only sold on Alibaba, but now everywhere thanks to Amazon and Ebay and Newegg’s policies of letting anyone sell anything on their platforms.”

But then if you think one level deeper, all the “real” brands are made in China, too. They are in theory equally likely to be cheap Chinese crap, or conversely, it is almost certain that some of these new never-heard-before Chinese brands are of equal quality as existing well-recognized name brands, due to coming from literally the same production line. It’s also a certainty that a lot of the “real” brands are cheaping out on components and build and materials in various ways, either intentionally or non, and their products are probably equally likely to be substandard compared to where they used to be and the existing field, which includes the new never-heard brands.

In sum, there are no reliable quality signals any more. Of the triad of brand name, price, and reviews, brand name and price have been diluted to near-uselessness for all except the highest-tier (Snap-On, Bosch and the like). Reviews are about the best you can do, but they are frequently gamed, and you can probably only really trust things with 500 or more reviews - but you can’t find items that well reviewed in all the categories of things you buy. This is a classic problem that the invisible hand theoretically solves, but I’m not sure a solution is here yet - so I turn to the fine body intellectual of Dopers!

What strategies do you follow to maximize the quality of your purchases, specifically in the fields of small appliances, consumer electronics, and tools?

Related, if you had no or only a few suspect reviews for the particular item you were looking at, what strategies would you follow to try to make the best decision?

I buy brands I trust. Although, I’ve recently been burned in a big way. I bought a fancy-schmancy Samsung refrigerator. Biggest mistake ever. Expensive. Been replaced once. Several visits from techs. It leaks, ice maker is practically unusable. The middle drawer is never cool. And it’s loud. So the moral is, you just never know. Samsung is a good brand. Or so I thought.

My first strategy is research, where possible. Not just reviews, but who is this company and how long have they been in business. Of course, for small purchases that just isn’t feasible. There are also professional reviews (e.g. America’s Test Kitchen for cooking equipment) that are less likely to be gamed or paid for.

My fallback strategy is to trust my gut, the look and feel, fit and finish of whatever it is. It helps to have even a tiny bit of background or experience, for example, I think I know a well-built piece of wood furniture (e.g. dresser) when I see it vs. mass-assembled stuff. There are lots of areas where I don’t have that, so again, I just have to trust my best judgment. You can also use your gut to help you decide if a salesperson you are talking to knows what they are talking about or is blowing smoke in order to make a sale.

You can only do the best you can. You just have to substitute your own judgment for the judgment of everyone’s previous experience.

I subscribe to Choice. One of their core competencies is reviews of small to medium houisehold purchases

I don’t know if there’s an equivalent of this in the US. Given how international many brands are these days though, I imagine people outside of AU might get useful information off the Choice website too

Past experience, brands I know, reviews from people I know, and staying away from the cheapest of anything.

Mostly agree - but for some consumer electronics I tend to go with low-priced models on the theory (and experience) that if/when they stop working I’m out a lot less money than if I bought expensive, supposedly superior stuff.

Learned this the hard way with LED plant lights.

Research, primarily. It’s a real minefield out there, especially for small appliances. Additionally, just because you’ve had really good results with one product from a company, that doesn’t always translate across ALL products from that company, or even within the same line of products from that company. One toaster may be five star, and the the next model may be a lemon. Test Kitchen and Wirecutter are both good test/review websites.

I avoid anything with some celebrity’s name plastered on it. More often than not they’ve never used the damn thing, and are just trying to make a profit off of their fans.

I try not to buy products manufactured in China. The quality control is just not there, and some of that crap is downright dangerous. It’s becoming more and more difficult to avoid, however.

We subscribed to Consumer Reports magazine a couple of decades ago. It’s been a great resource.

Amen! This is exactly the problem I’ve been having. I think it actually comes down to hidden information like which factory / production line a given item comes off of, as well as decisions-over-time that end up impairing build quality for the same product a few years later. It’s pretty maddening.

Test Kitchen, Wirecutter, Consumer Reports, and Choice all look like good resources for this sort of thing.

One thing I haven’t seen mentioned that I personally do (although this isn’t really feasible for gifts) is to buy used stuff. This works great for tools and furniture, when you can actually buy items from pre-outsourcing times when quality was more reliable (and the specific item you’re buying has been proven to stand the test of time).

It works to a lesser extent for appliances - I got a used washer once that was ~30 years old, and it’s still going strong 10 years later. This also worked for a stand mixer and a few other things, but I think it’d be harder to do for fridges and microwaves and electronics and such.

But when it comes to buying new stuff, it seems like our options are 1) put in extensive research on the companies and products, 2) only buy stuff with hundreds of positive reviews, or 3) take a gamble at whatever price point you’re buying at.

You can put Amazon reviews through ReviewMeta. It looks for suspicious reviews based on various criteria, such as a whole bunch of reviews coming on the same day, or reviews that all use very similar text. My experience is that the average score doesn’t change very much when removing suspect reviews, but I do have to think about a product differently when 160 out of 400 reviews are eliminated. When 15 out of 400 are eliminated, I don’t worry about it.

I also look at the 4 star and 1 star reviews. Sometimes the 1 star reviews are just whining or shipping complaints. A bimodal review distribution with a bunch of 4 and 5 star reviews of “great” and a bunch of 1 star reviews of “broke after a week” are good indication of poor quality.

I do agree with a previous poster that often times the cheapest is best, because then you’re out the least amount of money. For some products it is impossible to make a quality one cheaply, but it is very possible to sell a junk one for a lot of money. So then it is a matter of eliminating the cheapest, and figuring out which of the higher priced ones are quality, and which are just overpriced junk. “You get what you pay for” is the motto of people selling the overpriced junk.

One thing you can do if your appliances are getting old and starting to have problems is to get a home warranty, such as the one Sears offers. For about $40/month, they will fix any major appliance, regardless of make or where you bought it, and warranty the repair. If they are unable to repair it, they will replace it. There is a flat $75 fee for the repair people. Sears will also include a spring and fall HVAC checkup for free. So far, they have repaired our washing machine and our stove. The washer alone would have cost us $600 and the 2 hour call-out for the stove would have been a few hundred. The HVAC check every year would run several hundred from local companies. So far, this has been a positive cost/benefit for us.

We’ve been long term CR subscribers but they’ve really gone down hill for the most part. (The car reviews are still decent.)

The current editor is an idiot. In her column she mentioned that leasing might allow you to “get more car than you can afford.” E-freakin’-gad.

The mag now has this attitude that everybody is upper middle class or going into debt to appear so.


Really, positive? That’s nearly $500 per year. For that type of budget, I could conceivably replace everything I have with new stuff in just a few years.

I’m the same way with all that pink breast cancer stuff, and did that (or rather, did not do it) before my diagnosis. I’ve also heard that most of it is very poor quality.

That might be practical for someone whose appliances are all Sears, and are on the higher end. Otherwise, that’s $480 a year that could be used to replace something that’s worn out.

I read online reviews very carefully, looking for specifics in the information.

Worthless: “I love my new XM411 Turnip Twaddler! It’s perfect!”

Good: “I used the XM411 for a few weeks, and it’s pretty good. However, it doesn’t twaddle Amber Globe turnips as well is it twaddles rutabagas. We still use it for most of our turnips though.”

Great: “We have the XM411 Turnip Twaddler in our kitchen, but it doesn’t fit well under the standard 24” counter depth. We have to scoot it forward to access the twaddling hopper in order to load most turnips."

Less that worthless: “One star. It was delivered late”.

Never buy the cheapest item. I try to pick the middle price.

Look at Amazon reviews. Try to get 4 star or better.

Did you miss the part about them repairing ANY appliance, regardless of make or origin? I’d also prefer to repair an appliance than to just pitch it into the landfill. As I said, so far the cost of the warranty has been offset by the repairs being done and the free HVAC service. When that ceases to be the case, I’ll cancel the warranty.

Most of my purchases (TVs, laptops, smaller appliances) I confine myself to buying from Costco. Its easier to make a decision what to buy when I only have to research from what Costco carries, and I know I can take it back to Costco if there’s an issue with it. Because Costco will stop carrying products that are returned often, it seems like more of the low-quality stuff is weeded out.