The Impact of Non-Commercial Product Test Information on Commerce and Industry - Outline of the Study and Preliminary Findings -

Wolfgang Fritz, University of Mannheim
Harald Hilger, University of Mannheim
Gunter Silberer, University of Mannheim
Hans RaffTe, University of Mannheim
ABSTRACT - This paper presents an outline of the research program and preliminary findings of an empirical investigation, concerning the impact on the consumer-goods industry of product-test information in West Germany, published by the most important non-business test institution, the "Stiftung Warentest".
[ to cite ]:
Wolfgang Fritz, Harald Hilger, Gunter Silberer, and Hans RaffTe (1981) ,"The Impact of Non-Commercial Product Test Information on Commerce and Industry - Outline of the Study and Preliminary Findings -", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08, eds. Kent B. Monroe, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 381-385.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 8, 1981      Pages 381-385


Wolfgang Fritz, University of Mannheim

Harald Hilger, University of Mannheim

Gunter Silberer, University of Mannheim

Hans RaffTe, University of Mannheim

[The authors are members of the "Forschungsgruppe Konsumenteninformation" at the University of Mannheim - a research project that belongs to the research program "Empirische Verbraucherforschung", sponsored by the Federal Department of Research and Technology, West Germany.]


This paper presents an outline of the research program and preliminary findings of an empirical investigation, concerning the impact on the consumer-goods industry of product-test information in West Germany, published by the most important non-business test institution, the "Stiftung Warentest".


Of the more than one dozen commercial and non-commercial product-testing bodies and institutions in the Federal Republic of Germany, the most important, in terms of consumer policy, is the non-commercial "Stiftung Warentest" in Berlin (see Meiners 1968, pp. 64-69; Thorelli and Thorelli 1974, pp. 246 - 288; Brinkmann 1976, pp. 30-43; Silberer 1979, pp. 65-87; Kandler 1980). The importance of this independent testing institution, which is sponsored by public funds, is evident due to the high degree of diffusion of its test results and its well-known status in West Germany.

Following a representative survey, the "Stiftung Warentest" was known in 1978 to 79% of the population in West Germany. Its most important publication is the monthly journal "test" which, in 1978, achieved a total edition of 786,000 per issue, reaching 15% of the population for a readership of 7 million consumers per issue. The readership, in the widest sense, taking those into account also who seldom read the journal, reached 34% of the population in 1978; this was approximately one-third of the total population of West Germany (see Stiftung Warentest 1978, pp. 5-6 and p. 49).

The fact that the "Stiftung Warentest" is so very well known is not due merely to the growth in the size of editions of the journal "test", but more especially to the increasing diffusion of the test results; these are published as short reports in other newspapers and publications and are broadcast on radio and television (see Silberer 1979, p. 67-75; Stiftung Warentest 1978, p. 5, p.56 and pp. 69-81).

The fact that the "Stiftung Warentest" is so well known and has gained such a wide diffusion is not sufficient to evaluate the consumer-political effects of the "Stiftung Warentest". However the question must be examined, whether and how far the activities of the "Stiftung Warentest" help realize consumer-political goals (see Silberer 1979a, pp. 110 f.).

The "Stiftung Warentest" is, according to its constitution, bound to inform the public on the quality of widely used consumer goods which can be objectively measured. According to the aims of the federal government (the founder of the institution), the "Stiftung Warentest" is designed to augment the freedom of consumption for the consumer and to strengthen his market position vis a vis the suppliers of consumer goods, thus contributing to the maintenance and expansion of a workable competition (Friedrichs 1974, pp. 6-9; Schachtschabel 1976, p. 101; see Silberer 1979a, p. 111; Czerwonka, Schoppe and Weckbach 1977, pp. 279 f.; Biervert at al. 1977, p. 135; Scherhorn 1975, pp. 132 f. and pp. 211 ff.; Meiners 1968). Consequently the efficiency of the "Stiftung Warentest" must be judged not only by its impact on the consumer but also on the supplier, since this is the only way that one may evaluate the "non-use benefits" of the product test.

The Present State of Research

The systematic investigation of consumer test effects, as far as suppliers are concerned, has been considerably neglected both in Europe and in the United States. Only few empirical studies have been carried out in this field; these can be roughly classified into three groups:

1.  The first group deals solely with the content analysis of the test reports and more particularly with the changes of the average quality level and/or price-quality relationship (USA: Morris and Block 1968; Morris and Bronson 1969; 1970; West Germany: Beier 1977; 1978; Diller 1977; Mensch 1975, pp. 68 f.).

2.  Another group reports on investigations dealing specifically with single aspects of the effects of the consumer reports in the field of commerce, taking personal selling and assortment policy especially into account. Questionnaires and observation methods are used (see Beyss 1977; Eiermann 1977; IfaV 1977; Landes 1978; Landes & Specht 1979; Silberer 1980).

3.  The last group deals with the investigation of the effects of the consumer product test on industry and commerce. Only a pilot study has been carried out in West Germany (Arnold 1978). The most comprehensive study in the US was conducted by Beem and Ewing in 1954.

None of these investigations are either systematic, comprehensive or a reliable analysis of the test effects on industry and commerce (see Silberer 1979a, p. 119). These investigations were based on insufficient samples and, therefore, often represent merely case studies. Furthermore, the studies build upon no theoretical background, and no theoretically oriented explanations were given (e. g. Arnold 1978). The methods used were often ill-suited for revealing causalities between the product-test results and certain assumed effects, e.g. the changes of price-quality relationship. This applies especially to the content analysis. The investigations are therefore not generally representative, and have merely a descriptive character, possibly offering weak connections for, in our opinion, an overdue systematical analysis of product-test effects in the field of industry and commerce. The figures indicated by the "Stiftung Warentest" concerning the changes in sales volume caused by the product tests refer to a few examples which have not been systematically investigated (see Hnttenrauch 1978; Silberer 1979a, p. 119). They thus have merely an anecdotal form (Thorelli and Thorelli 1974, p. 256).

Objectives, Theoretical Background, and Methods Implemented in the Investigation

The objective of the research project is the systematic analysis of the consumer-political effects and the deficiencies of product test results. The research project seeks to analyze the effects of product tests on industry and commerce as well as the effects on consumers. This combined observation makes it possible also to investigate the so-called non-use benefits of product tests. Such non-use benefits can be caused as a result of producers improving the quality of poorly evaluated products, these quality improvements, therefore, also benefiting the nonusers of the product test. Furthermore, we have the opportunity more closely to analyze the interaction between suppliers and consumers.

This paper deals with the preliminary analysis of the effects and deficiencies of product-test information in the field of industry and commerce.

The first elementary objective of the study is to describe the possible effects and deficiencies of product test information, in particular in the following fields

- marketing activities (product policy, assortment policy, pricing, distribution, communication policy) of the suppliers;

- changes in sales volume;

- market structures.

It is planned to investigate whether and to what extent the product-test results lead to improvements in the product qualities, sales programs and price-quality relationships, as well as consumer-oriented product innovations. Furthermore planned is to investigate whether the diffusion of positively evaluated products is increased by the use of product tests in advertising, sales promotion and personal selling.

Another question to be examined is whether and to what extent product-test results are able to change the mobility of demand, which can be noted in changes in the sales volume.

Finally, note should also be taken of the changes in the market structure, due to product-test information. The question as to whether product-test results limit the degree of competition, or whether they influence the distribution of power between industry and commerce needs to be studied.

The second elementary objective of the investigation is to explain the described effects and deficiencies of product tests using theoretical approaches. The theoretical framework consists of two substantial principles, the gratification and capacity principle according to which individual and organizational behavior can be explained by expected or real gratifications and the restrictions of the behavior (see Silberer 1979, pp. 50-60; Schanz 1977, pp. 97-178). These principles help discover, classify, and integrate the theoretical approaches from which the workable hypotheses can be derived. In this context, approaches of communication, power and organization theory are especially important.

Product-test information influence the system of suppliers within a multi-step flow of communication. On the one hand, they influence the supplier system directly, i.e. without using information processing systems, and produce effects, e.g. merely due to the anticipated test reaction of the buyer. On the other hand, test information actually cause changes in buyer behavior and in the behavior of other relevant persons or bodies (e.g. standardization institutes) and thus have an indirect influence on the suppliers (see Silberer 1979a, p. 112). In this context the hypothesis of communication theory, in particular dealing with multi-step flow and the efficiency of communication are of fundamental importance when explaining the test effects on the supplier system (see e.g. Specht 1979, pp. 139-155, 175-178; Silberer 1979, pp. 40-47; Kroeber-Riel 1980).

The type and extent of the test effects depend a great deal on the real or supposed distribution of power between buyers and suppliers, and this again can be altered by the test results (see e.g. Box 1977, pp. 190-196; Specht 1979, p. 159). Product-test information increases the independence of the consumers and makes it easier for the consumers to implement sanctions, such as "voice" and "exit" vis-a-vis the suppliers, and increase the bargaining power of the consumers (see Hirschman 1974, pp. 17-45; Scherhorn 1975, pp. 36-40, 76 f., 211-213). Product-test information improves mobility and articulation possibilities, therefore increasing the potential power that the consumer has against the suppliers (vgl. Box 1977, pp. 190-196; Specht 1979, pp. 67-74). Furthermore, the product-test information limits the power of the suppliers by increasing the degree of competition (see Mnller 1965; Meiners 1968). Product-test information can alter the distribution of power between the suppliers by altering the articulation and mobility possibilities of commerce compared to those of industry. Thus not only approaches of communication theory but also those of power theory are extremely important for the explanation of the test effects.

Product test information often has merely an effect upon the supplier system if it brings about decision processes within organizations, resulting in changes in the behavior of these organizations. Behavioral theories of organization have to be taken into account when explaining the effects of tests on the supplier system; communication and power theoretical aspects also have to be considered (see Muller 1965; Schanz 1977; Kieser & Kubicek 1978; Wilpert 1980). Organizational reactions to test results depend, on the one hand, on the restrictions of behavior possibilities, e.g. the size or structure of the organization, and on the other, on the gratification expectations, e.g. perceived opportunities and risks (see Silberer 1979, pp. 148-155). Thus special note has to be taken of the so-called situational approach (see e.g. Kieser & Kubicek 1976), the behavioral theory of the firm (see e.g. Cyert & March 1963; March & Simon 1958), and the information processing approach (see e.g. Kirsch 1970-1971; Newell & Simon 1972) when explaining the effects of tests on the supplier system.

The third elementary objective is to propose practical measures for the marketing of the suppliers and especially for the product testing and consumer policy.

The investigation methods used include representative interviews using standardized questionnaires. The target is to interview at least one hundred firms, in industry and commerce. In industry, as the number of firms in specific branches to be interviewed is relatively small, complete investigations are to be carried out. Samples should also be conducted, above all among retailers.

The interviews in commerce and industry are designed to complement one another, and also to control the respective results.

The interviews are, as far as possible, to be carried out by the directors and members of the research group.

Preliminary Empirical Results

As the field work in the supplier system began only in August 1980 and is scheduled to last until the middle of 1981, we have as yet only few preliminary findings. These are based on extensive interviews lasting between 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours and were carried out with members of the top management of electrical appliance producers, especially those producing washing machines. Until now we have interviewed half of the producers selling washing machines in West Germany (both foreign and German makes), whose products were tested by the "Stiftung Warentest" (17 in all).

The survey method has proven to be very useful. The use of standardized questionnaires has presented no problems, nor have the interviews, which last between 1 1/2 and 2 1/2 hours. The willingness of industry to provide information has, until now, been considerable.

According to the results at present available, the marketing activities of the producers have been influenced in a number of ways by the product tests. With respect to the product policy most producers admitted taking note of the examining criteria of "Stiftung Warentest" when developing new products. Several top managers have even reported that their companies are prepared only to produce those products meeting the requirements of the "Stiftung Warentest". This means that in many cases it is not the published findings, but the anticipated inclusion of products in a test and the test requirements that influence the product policy.

The information from the sales companies of several foreign producers has been especially interesting; they stated that the test requirements of the "Stiftung Warentest" had been taken over by the foreign parent company for the development of new products for the foreign market. One of these firms is, in fact, one of the largest European companies in its field. This result can be considered to be a first indication of the international technological effects of product-test results in West Germany. Such effects can be expected especially for those foreign markets which have a large technological gap, which has to be compensated for by raising the level to that of the domestic market.

These international effects are limited not only by the different technical terms of delivery and stipulations on building that exist abroad, but also due to an obvious lack of international cooperation of the testing institutions. As several producers reported, the quality requirements of various foreign testing institutions, which differ to those of the "Stiftung Warentest", often stipulate that the production must be specifically adjusted to the quality requirements of testing institutions in foreign markets. At the same time however, the different requirements present sales possibilities abroad for those products which can no longer be sold at home due to the negative test results obtained.

Compared to the consideration of the test information within the field of product development, other product-political consequences of product-test information have hardly been mentioned. Some firms have mentioned the elimination of products and the introduction of new products, due to the test results. Very few firms have reported that product changes occurred because of the test results obtained.

In this context it is interesting to note that in some cases, the companies were of the opinion that the present product test had an inhibiting effect on innovations, above all new product ideas were either not sufficiently taken into account by the "Stiftung Warentest" or if notice was taken, this was usually too late.

An important area of test effects is, according to present results, the communication policy of the respective producers. About half the firms interviewed mentioned regular advertising and sales promoting activities, with positive test results, e.g. stickers or circulars sent to commerce. This indicates a difference in the effects of American tests, since these are not allowed to be used for advertising purposes (Thorelli & Thorelli 1972, p. 432).

Upon negative test results most firms try to ignore the results or to complain to the "Stiftung Warentest". Corrections, counter-advertising, or legal actions against the "Stiftung Warentest" have hardly ever occurred.

As far as the distribution policy is concerned, the test results above all influence the information used by the salesman. Until now all firms interviewed have admitted that they always inform their salesmen about the relevant test results. The salesmen often use these test results in sales discussions; moreover it has also been mentioned that commerce often initiates discussions based on the test results, and following negative test results special conditions or even the returning of products in question is demanded.

Nevertheless, according to the present findings, few test reactions of the producers deal with pricing. Price increases, due to positive test results, or price reductions, due to negative test results, have been carried out in only a few cases.

According to available information, most producers do not believe price reductions to be suitable to compensate for feared sales reductions due to negative test results, as these price reductions seem to "confirm" the poor test results.

The findings available to the present indicate that pro-duct-test information exerts a large influence on the sales of the firms interviewed. Most firms registered an increase in sales, following positive test results, and/or a drop in sales following negative test results.

These sales changes are, according to the producers concerned, however only of short duration, and after eight to ten months sales are back to normal. During this period a doubling of sales for products which received good results and/or a drop in sales by about 50% for products which received poor results was often the case. Spill-over effects of the positive test results on the sales of products which were not tested, however, have hardly ever been noted.

Not merely the actual, but also the anticipated reaction of sales to the test was considered particularly important by the firms interviewed. Virtually all the producers questioned took high sales risks into account following possible negative test results, and following possible positive test results, high sales chances were perceived. This is probably one of the decisive determinants of the indirect effects of the test results on industry.

To have an idea as to the relevant effects of the product-test on the market structures, we evaluated the appropriate statements made by the producers. Most of the producers interviewed were of the opinion that the product test increases quality competition, and at the same time favors large fines to such an extent that small and medium-sized firms are threatened with closure. Thus the power potential of the "Stiftung Warentest" vis-a-vis industry was considered to be especially large and insufficiently controlled. It was also considered to be superfluous as far as competition is concerned.

In summing up, it can be stated, that the test information of the "Stiftung Warentest" produces extensive effects within industry. These affect in particular product development, advertising, sales promotion, information of sales personnel, and above all the sales volume of the producers in question. It is important to note that many of these effects are brought about by anticipated demand behavior due to the test results and the resulting sales expectations. Thus, without a doubt the power and influence of the "Stiftung Warentest" on the market is considered very great. The proven results can confirm the assumption that the product test in the Federal Republic of Germany results in "non-use benefits" for the consumers.

These findings are, however, to be considered merely as preliminary results. The small number of interviews carried out up to now does not yet permit a determinant analysis nor hypothesis test.

All the same, due to the often mentioned statements, we can perhaps assume that the test effects are limited by - presumably - incorrect test results and above all by the low degree of topicality of the test results. In many cases, by the time the test report is published, new models or altered models of the goods tested are on the market. This can possibly have a neutralizing effect on the test results. The low degree of topicality could also possibly lead to the fact that potential opportunities to promote product innovations can often not be made use of.

If this is confirmed by the investigations still to be carried out, the current testing practice may be required to expand its testing capacities and possibly use new, time-saving media so as to alter this situation. The additional question should then be raised as to whether a test of prototypes, taking into account all the problems this involves, could contribute to increasing the innovative impulses of product-tests.

Furthermore, based on existing information, we can assume that due to a reduction of the international differences in quality requirements of the testing institutions, the international technological effects of product tests could be increased. This could be achieved by increasing the cooperation of the "Stiftung Warentest" with other foreign testing institutions,

To summarize the proven effects of the product tests on industry, it can be concluded that consumer policy should pay more attention to the supplier reactions on product test results than has to now been the case, and should not concentrate its activities solely on the consumers.


The "Stiftung Warentest" is the most important non-commercial product-testing institution in the Federal Republic of Germany. As its economic functions are directed towards maintaining and expanding a workable competition, its efficiency must be evaluated not only due to its effects on the consumers but also by its effects on the suppliers. The effects on suppliers have up until now not been empirically investigated to a satisfactory extent.

The objective of the reported research project lies in the description and explanation of the effects and deficiencies of product tests in the field of marketing activities, sales volume, and the markets of the suppliers of consumer goods, as well as in the presentation of practical suggestions.

Following the first extensive interviews with members of top management of electrical appliance producers, the preliminary results show that product tests have an especially marked influence on product development, advertising, sales promotions, information of sales personnel and sales volume. The power and influence of the "Stiftung Warentest" on the market can therefore be considered to be substantial.


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