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The Essential Shopping Manifesto – how to be a clever shopper in a world filled with dodgy user reviews and worse

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How on earth are we supposed to pick a supplier, manufacturer or service nowadays, when everywhere you look there are conflicting user reviews, which both praise and condemn at the same time?  It’s a minefield of truth, misinformation and downright lies, right? Well not quite. If you know what you’re doing you can definitely make great purchases you’ll be happy with for a long time.  We thought we’d offer our own short guide to making a sensible and informed buying decision in the age of the  noisy opinionated online mob.

adslvsfiber

We’ve just switched from plain old ADSL broadband to a sooper dooper high speed fiber optic connection here at Ferret Towers. Bonus, it’s costing less money than before, for unlimited bandwidth at jaw dropping speeds down the boring old phone line from the cabinet. Who would have thought it? Here’s a nice little image above to let you see the lovely reality we woke up to this morning.

Mmm…nice!

But the fact is, it took several weeks to stump up the gumption to make the switch, even though in retrospect the decision seems to be completely obvious. The reason for the hesitation was twofold. First, we’d been with our existing supplier for years and they were pretty good to us (except they were too expensive, had bandwidth limits and were totally uninterested in keeping me as a customer) and second, it was hard get a clear picture from my research as to which would be a reliable company to switch to.

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And therein lies a problem we’re increasingly facing nowadays – trying to make sure we choose the best product or service for our needs, without falling for fake company recommendations and other false promises on our way to the cash till. The best way to achieve that is to have some sort of plan, a way of making sure you chart the optimum path towards the truth. A kind of buying process manifesto.

Our process for buying anything of value is to split the process up into three distinct stages:

Research, Evaluation and Deal Finding

BEFORE WE START

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Depending on the value of the intended purchase, you’re going to need time to do a proper amount of research. Sure if it’s a new teapot, you’re probably not going to spend days hunting (unless you’re a connoisseur of antique silver pots), but for anything which has a decent value, you should allocate at least a day or two to filter out the noise and start to hone in on the potential winners. It amazes me every time I see people who spend a mere half an hour hunting for cheap flights or vacations, when with a little more work, they could got a much better deal. It’s either laziness or incompetence, but in these days of Google it doesn’t make sense.

Recommended time matrix:*

Goods/Services under $50 – spend a few hours in your evaluation (optional?)
Goods/Services over $100 – spend a day
Goods/Services over $500 – spend two days
Goods/Services over $1000 – spend at least a week
Goods/Services over $5000 – as long as it takes, Johnny

* Note that if you’re a city banker with a 7 figure salary, a) why are you reading this tripe and b)you’ll have someone to do this buying stuff for you anyway. In a similar vein the rest of us need to make sure we don’t spend too much of our valuable time in the hunt, otherwise the ROI clearly works against us. But never forget it’s not just the return on investment that counts, but also personal satisfaction that makes the results worthwhile.

RESEARCH

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1. Spread your net wide, my child!
In order to do your research justice you’ll need to spread your net wide. It’s fairly obvious that if all you do is spend 20 minutes reading up on a few Amazon reviews you’re only going to get a limited picture of the value proposition. And often even that can be skewed. See (2) below. We decided to buy a juicer a few years back, triggered by one of those massively annoying VitaMix demos at an expo we visited. Convinced that no juicer was worth what they were asking, I spent literally months (we were in no hurry) pulling in information, data, reviews and opinions from as many sources as I could, both on the VitaMix and alternatives.

I didn’t do it all at once of course, but every so often I would fire up the browser and do another search and browse to see what popped up on the subject of ‘best juicers’ or ‘smoothie makers‘ or whatever phrase grabbed my fancy during the session. During that time I must have visited scores of online foodie forum discussions, product review sites (obviously places like Amazon and reevoo.com are great places to start) and basically anywhere I felt I would find some more information to add to the story.

In the end, after nearly going for a product which was half the price but with a weaker motor, we sucked up our pride and bought one of the infernally expensive VitaMix machines. And we’ve loved every minute of the thing for more than three years. In this case the product’s reputation was actually deserved, as we discovered.

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2. Be suspicious of outliers
The most annoying thing about user reviews is how variable they can be. In the blue corner you’ve got Joe who ‘loves loves loves’ his Acme because it really does ‘xyz‘, while in the red corner Sharon thinks the product is the biggest rip-off of the decade, and the company treated her like dirt when she complained…blah. Who on earth are we to believe?

It’s a big problem, made more so by the fact that all of us, deep down, know that clever companies hire people to seed forums and review sites with favorable views, and they’re getting better at it too. While the newbie Chinese companies are still at the stage of pushing their ‘awesome product, so useful, definitely 5 star’ reviews, the wiser, older Western marketeers sprinkle very persuasive ‘I’m not usually a fan of Acme, but…‘ reviews with 4 stars and a lot of credible justification added to the mix. It’s hard to tell they’re a shill.

So let’s start at the beginning of wading through these reviews to find the gems.

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a. Discount most of the outlier reviews. This means discounting the short reviews with 5 stars on Amazon which are not ‘Verified Purchase’ or Real Name. And sometimes even if they are verified and Real Name. It’s brutal, but it gives you some sort of standard by which to operate. If you find a 5 star review which goes into depth about both the plusses and the minuses, and offers suggestions for best use (or who will find the product most useful etc) then you can forget this rule and add it to your ‘Source’ list for later evaluation.

Don’t forget to ask questions of this type of reviewer in the Amazon comments either, it can be very helpful to see what kind of replies you get. A real reviewer will be delighted to help you out with additional information and updates on their experiences with the product. It’s a great way to get under the skin of a review too, to find out specific things.

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Discounting the one star reviews also helps to get rid of the haters, the impossibly fussy, the crazies and rival company shills. Again take note of well reasoned, in depth reasons why something deserves a single star, but even then, unless you spot a definite trend for that product (see also Evaluation 1 below), it’s unlikely that one single experience represents a general mood (as with 5 star reviews too of course). Read on for details of how to evaluate the options and make the best choice!

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Nigel is the managing editor of the Red Ferret, as well as a freelance columnist for the Sunday Times newspaper in London. Loves tech and fancies himself as a bit of a futurist, but then don’t we all?

Nigel – who has written posts on The Red Ferret Journal.


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