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|First issue||October 1957|
Which? is a product-testing and consumer campaigning charity with a magazine, website and various other services run by Which? Ltd (also known as the Consumers' Association, still the official name of the charity).
Based in the United Kingdom, it engages in advocacy campaigns on various consumer protection issues and aims to promote informed consumer choice in the purchase of goods and services, by testing products, highlighting inferior products or services, raising awareness of consumer rights and offering independent advice.
The organisation exists to make individuals as powerful as the organisations they have to deal with in their daily lives and maintains its independence by not accepting advertising or freebies. Which? receives no government funding.
The vast majority of Which?'s income comes from subscriptions to its products and services. Profits are used to fund advocacy activity and inform the public on consumer issues.
In the past, Which? used prize draws - similar to Reader's Digest - to gain additional subscribers, but following some criticism of this method, the organisation discontinued prize draws in 2006. New subscribers are attracted via free mini-guides and trial offers.
Which? also holds legislative powers to take action on behalf of consumers, including the ability to bring a super-complaint to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), a power first used to call for an investigation into private dentistry in 2001.
History and background
The organisation was set up in 1957 as a response to the changing values and concerns of the post-war era, at a time of rapid changes in product markets and consumer behaviour - and a corresponding growth in sharp trading practices.
To combat this, Michael Young, research director for the Labour Party, proposed setting up a 'Consumer Advisory Service' to be considered for the party's 1950 manifesto, only to be rejected by Harold Wilson.
Encouraged by the efforts of Dorothy and Ray Goodman in the United States, Young continued to push the idea and in October 1957 the first Which? magazine was published from a converted garage in Bethnal Green. Its central aim was to improve the standard of goods and services available to the public in the UK.
The publication started as a small 32-page magazine that included reports on electric kettles, sunglasses, aspirin, cake-mixes, scouring powders, no-iron cottons and British cars.
By 1959, membership reached 150,000 and a membership services office in Hertford.
As circulation of Which? magazine increased, new premises were found in 1961 at 14, Buckingham Street, WC2. This collection of tiny offices and cubby holes, handily placed above the basement Gordon’s wine bar in Villiers Street, remained the centre for editorial, research and publishing activities until 1987.
In 1962, coverage expands with the launch of the first quarterly Which? car supplement, which becomes Motoring Which? in 1965, followed by Money Which? in 1968.
1970 - 1980:
In 1970, Which? bought a set of buildings in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, to set up labs to test products including domestic appliances, DIY equipment, and consumer electronics. Previously, the work had been contracted out.
The 1970s saw Which? taking a greater campaigning role, and it began to adopt a more aggressive stance on issues such as lead poisoning and aircraft noise. In 1971, for example, Which? published the first league table on the tar and nicotine content of cigarettes.
Handyman Which? was launched in 1971, followed by Holiday Which? in 1974, and there was a deeper foray into book publishing throughout the decade. Guides on gardening, DIY and personal finance were launched in a book series called Which? Way.
The organisation also dabbled in high street consumer advice centres during the 1970s. There were more than 120 such centres operating in 1977-8, with many of them funded by local councils. The centres closed as funding was withdrawn by the government in 1980.
In 1982, another Which? title launched - Gardening Which? - which coincided with the organisation's silver jubilee celebrations. A year later, Handyman Which?, Money Which? and Motoring Which? titles were merged into a revamped full-colour Which? magazine.
Which? continued campaigning on consumer safety issues, with its car safety test results strengthening calls to legislate car manufacturers to fit seat belts in all new cars, helping to make it compulsory to Clunk Click Every Trip in 1983.
In 1986, Which? acquired health title Self Health which later becomes Health Which?.
In 1987, the 300-strong employees moved to 2, Marylebone Road, W1 with a view to consolidating these functions in one properly-designed building. That the new space was too small to include the 60 staff of the Marketing Department, who occupied a different building in Euston Road for a number of years afterwards, was a minor oversight.
In 1992, Which? launched another satellite publication, this one aimed at youngsters aged 11–15, called Check It Out!. The magazine failed to take off and closed in June 1994.
In 1995 testing facilities were moved to Milton Keynes where they remained until 2002, when the majority of the Which? testing activities were contracted out.
Which? Online, the first incarnation of the Which? website, was launched in 1996.
The first issue of Computing Which? was published in December 1999.
The whole organisation, including its charitable arm, formerly the Consumers' Association is rebranded as Which? in 2004.
Following the deregulation of the gas and electricity industry, Which? launched a free online energy comparison service called Switch with Which? in 2005, to help consumers compare energy tariffs and switch to a different supplier. The service was awarded Energywatch Confidence Code accreditation in 2006.
Digital development continues throughout the decade: a new-look Which? website is launched in 2006 and again in 2010. In 2007 the organisation celebrated its 50th anniversary, and released a nostalgic supplement looking back at its first half century. More than 20 years after its first incarnation as Money Which?, a new money-themed magazine called Which? Money is unveiled in February 2007.
In the 2010 Superbrands index, Which? is ranked 5th in the "Media — Newspapers and Magazines" category and 256th overall.
An opinion-led blog tackling the ‘consumer issues of the day’, Which? Conversation, followed by an online mobile comparison and switching service, Which? Mobile, both launch in 2010.
Which? carries out systematic testing of consumer products and financial services, the results of which are published in reports in its flagship publication, Which? magazine, and on the Which? website.
Tests are carried out on consumer items like electrical and white goods, cars, and computers, as well as health and financial and tradespeople services, and supermarkets. Testing highlights issues such as reliability, performance, safety, energy efficiency and value-for-money.
Top-rated products are awarded the Which? 'Best Buy' status logo, an accreditation well recognised by industry and consumers. Which? first used the phrase in its second magazine edition in 1958, to describe Boots 365 talcum powder. Conversely, the worst performing products are labelled 'Don’t Buys'.
The Which? website has six topic-led sections: Technology, Home & Garden, Cars, Money, Baby & child and Energy. Each of the six sections includes a combination of subscription-only access to reviews and free advice articles about products and services Which? tests, reviews and investigates.
The Which? Awards is an annual event to 'celebrate the UK’s best products and services, from cars and restaurants to supermarkets and financial services'.
Unusual test subjects
As well as household products such as washing machines, TVs and vacuum cleaners, Which? tests have also included some more unusual products.
- Nylon stockings in mid-1958
- Bird seed for budgerigars in 1959
- Contraceptives in 1963
- Paper dresses in 1967
- Antiperspirants and deodorants in 1976
- Pets in 1977
- Footballs in 1982
Which? magazine is the organisation’s flagship publication. It is a subscription-only magazine and doesn't appear on the newsstand. The magazine reports on topical consumer issues of the day, as well as publishing product testing results and findings of original research and investigations. The magazine has been edited by Martyn Hocking since 2008.
The magazine also raises awareness of trading it believes goes against the interests of consumers. Examples of this including an expose into solar panel heating installation companies, an undercover enquiry with the RNID revealing serious problems at shops selling hearing aids and an investigation into product knowledge held by electronics shop staff.
Which? Travel is published six times a year. It is a subscription-only magazine and doesn't appear on the newsstand. Its aim is to offer customers 'practical advice and inspirational ideas, and will help you choose the best travel companies, services and products'.
The magazine was first launched as Holiday Which? in 1974. It was then rebranded Which? Holiday, before being renamed to current title Which? Travel in January 2011.
Which? Car is a quarterly magazine that focuses on both new and used cars, offering consumers 'help and advice on making their second largest purchase after a house'.
The magazine, which first appeared as a quarterly supplement in Which? magazine in 1962, publishes the results of its lab-based and on-the-road car tests, and also delivers research around car reliability and satisfaction.
Which? Car is currently the only Which? magazine publication to be sold in newsagents and shops rather than via subscription.
Which? Money, re-launched in 2007, is the newest Which? publication. It 'is totally dedicated to your money, bringing you money-saving tips, expert comment, in-depth reports', and rates financial products and services.
Which? Money subscribers also receive free access to a phone and email-based helpdesk service.
Which? Computing is a bi-monthly magazine that first appeared (as Computing Which?) in December 1999, following the growing consumer interest in home computing.
It 'covers a broad spectrum of topics to allow you to make the right choices in today’s complex technology marketplace'. Topics covered in the magazine include Internet Service Providers, wireless technology and the latest tablet computer, laptop and netbook releases.
Subscribers to Which? Computing also receive free access to an email-based helpdesk service.
Launched in 1982, Which? Gardening is a monthly publication (10 times a year) focused on 'practical gardening advice and beautiful photography'.
The magazine carries out tests and trials on flowers, plants, gardening products and equipment, as well as reporting on gardening trends and issues.
Policy, consultation and parliamentary lobbying
Which? identifies where consumers are experiencing problems and provides practical policy solutions. Which? regularly briefs MPs, Peers, AMs, MLAs, MSPs and MEPs on consumer issues, addressing consumer detriment at a National, European and International level.
Which? is in regular communication with politicians of all political parties in order to deliver positive change for UK consumers. For example, Which? successfully lobbied to put an end to the '65 day rule' that allowed energy companies to wait 65 days before informing their customers of a price change.
Which? joined forces with Rt Hon David Davis (British politician) MP, Rt Hon John McFall MP and Dr Vince Cable MP, to form The Future of Banking Commission, which launched its recommendations in June 2010.
In January 2002, Which? established an office in Edinburgh to strengthen lobbying work with members of the Scottish parliament.
Which? aims to put itself at the heart of EU policy and decision-making processes to ensure the voices of UK consumers are heard and, where necessary, influence international negotiations.
It works with the European umbrella organisation, the European Consumers' Association (BEUC) which brings together over forty consumer organisations from across Europe to represent common consumer interests within the EU institutions.
Which? is one of eight organisations able to issue a super-complaint. The Consumers' Association was among the first groups granted these new powers. A super-complaint can be made about any market that is not working properly for consumers. As consumers are not in the position to overcome the issue themselves, Which? can issue a super-complaint on consumers' behalf.
The OFT has 90 days in which to assess the complaint and decide what to do about it. It can reject the complaint in part or as a whole, it can launch a market investigation, take action under competition law or consumer law, or refer the market to the Competition Commission for further investigation.
Which? made its first super complaint about private dentistry in 2001. It has since made complaints about care homes, the Northern Ireland banking sector and credit card interest calculation methods.
Its latest super complaint (March 2011) relates to unfair debit and credit card payment surcharges issued by retailers. The OFT upheld the super-complaint in June 2011, described as a 'victory for consumers' by Which? chief executive, Peter Vicary Smith.
Legal action against rogue traders
In 2005 Which? was granted legal powers to bring rogue traders to account for their actions under Part 8 of the Enterprise Act 2002.
Unfair contract terms
Which? has statutory powers under the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999. Which? can seek an injunction to restrain the use of an unfair contract term by a trader against consumers.
Competition Appeals Tribunal
Which? is one of the 'specified bodies' who, under the Enterprise and Competition Acts, may bring proceedings before the Competition Appeals Tribunal (CAT) on behalf of two or more consumers for damages.
Which? was granted specified body status on October 1, 2005 by the Ministers of the Department of Trade and Industry. In April 2007 Which? launched its first representative action on behalf of consumers unlawfully overcharged for football shirts due to price fixing.
The Consumers’ Association is made up of a board who report to a council of trustees. The corporate management group, who run the day-to-day management of Which? Ltd, report to the Consumers Association and ensure the organisation is properly run in the charity's interest.
Council and members
The organisation is governed by a Council of 12 elected and six co-opted members. Patrick Barwise is the current chairman.
Any Which? member can stand for the Council, with Which? subscriber Roger Pittock elected in 2003, for instance. None of the Council or Board members are paid, although they are entitled to claim reasonable expenses.
- Mark Addison
- Patrick Barwise
- Anthony Burton (Deputy Chairman)
- Neville Duncan
- Margaret Ginman
- Tanya Heasman
- Sue Leggate
- Natalie Macdonald
- Roger Pittock
- Paul Preston
- Richard Thomas (Deputy Chairman)
- Alison Thorne
- Gary Waller
- Steve Woolgar
- John Zealley
Which? campaigns on personal finance, energy, technology and food and health issues. Consumers help form Which?'s campaigning agenda. The Which? campaigns website explains the organisation's latest lobbying positions, documents progress and explains how consumers can get involved.
In February 2011, Which? used its powers to launch a super-complaint against excessive credit card surcharges and fees. The OFT upheld the super-complaint in June 2011, described as a 'victory for consumers' by Which? chief executive, Peter Vicary Smith.
The Which? website is the online arm of Which? magazine. The website is used to regularly publish product reviews following independent testing, which only subscribing Which? customers are able to log in and view. The website also offers free, impartial advice content across a range of consumer interest areas, including Technology, Home & Garden, Money, Cars, Baby & Child and Environment & Saving Energy.
Free videos and initial 'first look' product reviews are available for all readers to access. The website is also used to keep readers informed of Which?’s latest campaigning work.
Which? also has several 'spin-off' website services:
- Which? Local: a subscription-only website for Which? customers which lists customer recommended local service providers and reviews – from builders to electricians to pubs.
- Which? Conversation: a community-based blog site tackling topical consumer issues and inviting the general public and other organisations to join the debate.
- Which? Switch: a free-to-use comparison service to help consumers compare energy tariffs and switch to a different supplier, accredited by Consumer Focus, the industry watchdog.
- Which? Mobile: a free-to-use switching service that lets consumers compare mobile phone deals and handsets from UK network providers and retailers.
Which? Legal service
Which? Legal service offers an unlimited telephone and email advice service to subscribing members on consumer legal rights, from trained lawyers – including employment, property, will-writing and travel rights. Subscribers pay a fixed annual fee for the service.
Which? Mortgage advisory service
In November 2010, Which? announced plans to offer its members and their friends and family a free telephone-based mortgage advice service, regulated by the Financial Services Authority (FSA).
||This article uses bare URLs for citations, which may be threatened by link rot. (August 2012)|
- See http://www.which.co.uk/about-which/who-we-are/overview/
- Which? annual report 2004-2005 http://www.which.co.uk/documents/pdf/annual-report-2004-2005-111742.pdf
- See http://www.oft.gov.uk/OFTwork/markets-work/super-complaints/
- Which? annual report 2009-2010 http://www.which.co.uk/documents/pdf/annual-report-2009-2010-233892.pdf
- "Which? The Golden Years". BBC. 7 October 2007.
- Which? magazine, October 2007, p. 3.
- 50 years of Which? supplement. Which? magazine, October 2007
- "The history of Which? - What is Which? - Who we are - About Which?". Which.co.uk. Retrieved 25 December 2011.
- "Contact us - About Which?". Which.co.uk. 20 March 2006. Retrieved 25 December 2011.
- 'See WayBack Archives http://wayback.archive.org/web/*/http://www.which.co.uk
- Which? Computing magazine, November 2010
- "Switch with Which? gets seal of approval - December - 2006 - Which? News". Which.co.uk. 20 December 2006. Retrieved 25 December 2011.
- "Superbrands Official Top 500 2010". Superbrands UK. Retrieved 21 November 2010.
- "About Which? Conversation | Which? Conversation". Conversation.which.co.uk. Retrieved 25 December 2011.
- See http://www.which.co.uk/about-which/what-we-offer/best-buy-scheme/
- See http://www.which.co.uk/about-which/what-we-offer/which-awards/
- See http://www.which.co.uk/about-which/what-we-do/which-works-for-you/
- Which? contraceptives supplement. Which? magazine
- Which? magazine, February 1976
- Which? magazine, August 1977
- See BBC gallery http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/spl/hi/picture_gallery/07/business_which0_50th_anniversary/html/7.stm
- Which? magazine, May 2010
- Which? magazine, October 2010
- Which? magazine, February 2011
- See http://www.which.co.uk/about-which/what-we-offer/magazines-and-books/which-travel/
- "Which? Car Magazine - Magazines and books - What we offer - About Which?". Which.co.uk. Retrieved 25 December 2011.
- See http://www.which.co.uk/about-which/what-we-offer/magazines-and-books/which-money/
- See http://www.which.co.uk/about-which/what-we-offer/magazines-and-books/which-computing/
- See http://www.which.co.uk/about-which/what-we-offer/magazines-and-books/which-gardening/
- The Times http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/money/consumer_affairs/article7027970.ece
- "Which? magazine", May 2009. P.4-5
- BEUC website http://www.beuc.org/Content/Default.asp
- See http://www.oft.gov.uk/OFTwork/markets-work/super-complaints/dentistry
- See http://www.oft.gov.uk/OFTwork/markets-work/super-complaints/which-payment-surcharges
- See http://www.which.co.uk/news/2011/06/consumer-victory-as-oft-uphold-which-super-complaint--257422/
- See http://www.which.co.uk/campaigns/