I want to be a wise, careful consumer – but useless online reviews have me stumped

For environmental reasons, I want to be a better consumer. And also because I’m sick of buying crap. Buy less, buy better. But that’s much easier said than done. To be the wise, discerning consumer I want to be, I need reliable information about the quality of what I’m planning to buy. While there are recommendations galore available online, my strongest suspicion is that barely any can be considered reliable.

I need some new walking shoes, and a well-known search engine instantly furnishes me with a long list of websites on which there are relatively short lists of the best walking boots. Words such as “trust” and “review” and “test” feature heavily on these sites. Even on the more reputable ones, you will have to look closely to find the small print, along the lines of: “We make money from putting these walking shoes in our list of best walking shoes, especially if you click through to whichever retailer we link to.”

This wouldn’t matter if there was any proper testing done in the first place, but I’m now realising how gullible I was to ever have believed this was likely. After all, the time and money involved in conducting any meaningful test must be massive. At the very least I suppose you’d have to pick, say, 25 different pairs of boots and correctly fit them to 25 pairs of feet belonging to 25 similarly sized individuals who would then have to cover a similar distance over similar ground in similar conditions over a similar amount of time. It’s just not going to happen.

So what do you do? I called Martin Lewis, AKA the Money Saving Expert, to see if I was missing something. It turns out I wasn’t. “Objective reviews about the quality of anything are very difficult to come by; that’s why I tend to focus on price first and foremost.” His advice is to ignore most of the stuff that comes up at the top of a search on Google. “The best you can say, possibly, is that there won’t be an absolute kipper on there, but you’ll be better off going to a specialist source like a magazine. OK, they’ll take advertising, I’m sure, but the chances are you’ll get more honest reviews. Other than that, just cross your fingers.”

I thought the internet was supposed to empower consumers, but all the power seems to be with whoever’s selling us the stuff. Yes, the web might find us the best price, but the best buy is another matter. And it’s not as if we consumers can do much to help each other out. The same well-known “specialist” retailer has now sold me two consecutive pairs of its branded walking shoes, which were, I was assured, expensive but waterproof and durable. They turned out to be only one of those three things. How can I alert the world to this travesty? There is no forum anyone can trust because any such forum would, sure as anything, soon be corrupted itself. And neither do I dare utter the brand name here for fear of the legal consequences. Nor do I want any free pairs in compensation because I’m sick of bunging knackered three-month-old shoes into landfill.

Nowhere can I find advice entirely unsullied by commercial interests. This I can just about live with if something approximating rigorous testing has been done. Which? magazine falls into this category, and we probably need to be thankful the organisation exists but, my word, its moth is close to the flame with offerings such as Best AO.com Black Friday Deals for 2021. At least we can be confident that tests have been done on whatever products it has picked out. And, lo and behold, it’s done something on walking shoes, so I may be able to get on a sound footing after all.

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