Business

Five sites for smart consumers

We all have our own opinions about politics, sports, and even technology. We all occupy our own particular neighborhoods, income brackets, and sections of the iTunes store. But the one thing we all have in common is that—whether we’re buying necessities, splurging on luxuries, or dealing with everyday financial challenges—we’re consumers.

As it has in so many other parts of our lives, the Internet has transformed the way we consume. We can now look up reviews, compare prices, and check on a vendor’s reputation, all before we pull out our credit cards or sign on the dotted line. The Web has given us voices we didn’t have in the past, to talk back to vendors and tell our fellow consumers what we think. Here are five of my favorite sites for consumer information, advocacy, and savings.

The Consumerist

The Consumerist blog, which covers a wide range of pro-consumer issues, started as a cog in the Gawker Media machine. But it eventually became so popular—and so respected—that the site was purchased by Consumers Union, the organization behind Consumer Reports. Among the most popular articles are reader reports about companies that mistreat their customers; the site has become a sort of crowd-sourced Better Business Bureau. But it also covers personal finance, the banking industry, and maintaining good credit. How influential is The Consumerist? In the past year, the site’s editors have twice had sit-down interviews with White House officials about economic and consumer issues. And horror stories about vendors are often followed up with posts along the lines of, “After The Consumerist posted my letter, the CEO of Company X contacted me directly…”

ConsumerSearch.com

If you’re looking for reviews of Macs, iPods, iPhones, and related products, you know where to go. But for everything else, the best place to start is ConsumerSearch. For a given type of product—say, LCD TVs—the editors at this meta-site gather review information from all over the Web, compile it into a comprehensive report (ranking each source by its credibility), and provide recommendations—best overall, best value, best budget, and more. A full report for each product type provides background information and useful buying advice.

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

The CPSC site isn’t pretty, and it certainly isn’t fun to read, but if you’re thinking of buying a product—for your child or household, or for outdoor, sports, or recreation use, in particular—the site can be invaluable, providing browsable and searchable recall information and safety tips. You can even report unsafe products yourself. The agency also publishes Web videos and occasional podcasts covering recalls and safety and buying tips, and there are RSS feeds and e-mail lists to keep you up to date on the latest safety information.

Dollars & Sense

While it focuses on the San Francisco Bay Area, you don’t have to live there to get something out of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Dollars & Sense blog. It provides an informative and entertaining take on real-world personal finance—sensible spending, money-saving ideas, timely bargains, and consumer advocacy. As the author puts it, the blog is about “finding new ways to inject dollars, cents, and sensibility into your everyday spending.” (Disclaimer: The author of the Dollars & Sense blog is a former Macworld staff member who is married to a current Macworld staffer.)

DealMac

Part of being an informed consumer is knowing where the deals are. When it comes to sales, specials, and coupons for Mac-related products, DealMac has cornered the market. On a typical day, the site points out 70 to 100 current deals on Mac-related items—hardware, software, accessories, you name it. To make that fire-hose of information easier to digest, subscribe to the site’s RSS feed, use the site’s search engine, or sign up to be alerted via e-mail whenever a particular product (or type of product) is mentioned. The company that runs DealMac also runs similar sites for computer and camera memory, digital cameras, and fashion, as well as a site that gathers up coupons and online coupon codes, and a “master” site that consolidates many of the other sites’ deals.

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