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Culture

German Consumer Watchdog Turns 40

Loved by consumers and feared by manufacturers, Germany's consumer watchdog "Stiftung Warentest" turns 40.

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A Berlin lab tests the safety of coffee machines

Its little logo is a David in the fight against corporate Goliaths. Paired up with quality-conscious German consumers, a Stiftung Warentest product ranking can make or break its success.

Titelcover Der Test Warenkäufer Nr. 1 April 1966

1966 edition of Stiftung Warentest's magazine

The consumer watchdog organization -- comparable to Consumer Reports in the US or the British Standards Institute -- will turn 40 this weekend. From a difficult birth, requiring the intercession of then-Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the group quickly achieved recognition reserved for the likes of BMW or Mercedes Benz. A recent poll showed 96 percent of all German adults recognized the Stiftung Warentest name.

A good Stiftung Warentest result is much more than just a neutral opinion; it can be invaluable for the success of a product. Every third German has consulted the results of the organization's testing at least once. It is therefore not surprising that top designation of "very good" practically assures high sales volume, whereas the worst grade, "lacking," all but spells failure in the marketplace.

The Aldi factor

"If a supplier to (international supermarket chain) Aldi gets a test result that is less than "good," it can very quickly lead to a cancelled contract," Stiftung Warentest spokeswoman Heike van Laak said. Example: testers gave Paderborn-based Stute company's breakfast juice a bad grade, and Aldi cancelled the contract. The loss to the company was €5 million ($6.6 million).

Uschi Glas

Actress Uschi Glas

Another example of how a bad rating can affect a product's sales has recently been making its way through Germany's courts -- and its tabloids. Popular television actress Uschi Glas came out with a line of skincare products Stiftung Warentest deemed "lacking;" noting it caused "burning, itching, flaking, redness and pustules" for some testers.

'Germany's sweetheart' fights back

The actress once known as "Germany's sweetheart" came back with a lawsuit, asserting the Warentest had a conflict of interest. At stake: a whole lot of money and the actress's reputation. Both parties are awaiting the court's decision.

Indeed, Stiftung Warentest deals routinely with complaints and lawsuits from firms dissatisfied with their product's ratings. But the head of the organization, Werner Brinkmann, says he is proud of his organization's track record. Stiftung Warentest has won most of the lawsuits, although it has settlements as well. "But we've never had to pay compensatory damages," Brinkmann noted.

Tough job to protect the consumer

Matratzenprüfgerät von Stiftung Warentest

Mattresses are put to tough tests

Given the organization's popularity today, it is interesting to note that its creation took an act of legislature and the personal attention of the head of state. In the beginning, German business lobbied hard and successfully against the creation of an organization that would operate like American consumer testing agencies, which had been around since the 1920s.

The Federation of German Industries especially fought the idea, arguing that consumers were adequately informed through advertising. Only after Adenauer intervened and two courts ruled in favor of comparative product testing was the way cleared for the organization's founders.

Sewing machines, puree blenders

On Dec. 4, 1964, the Bundestag christened the "Corporation for Neutral Product Testing," which began by testing mechanical sewing machines and puree mixers. Today, Stiftung Warentest tests around 73,000 products, and has magazines on consumer goods and financial products, as well as numerous special issues

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