Consumer: From sewer rat to rigid watchdog

Sue Chetwin: Has transformed the magazine.
Sue Chetwin: Has transformed the magazine.

Consumer NZ celebrates its 50th birthday this year. The Wellingtonian investigates the changes the organisation has been through in an evolving society.


The founding chairman of Consumer NZ was once told his organisation should not exist.

"Why don't you go back to the sewer; you're a rat!

"Why don't you go back to the sewer from whence you came," an old retailer told Sir George Wood shortly after Consumer NZ was created in 1959.

Consumer's former long-serving chief executive David Russell said that sentiment summed up the attitude on some traders' minds at the time.

"The underlying message was: `We know best. The consumer doesn't need an organisation like yours around'."

But that attitude didn't last very long, and Consumer increasingly won the respect of the commercial world.

"The organisation demonstrated that it was thorough in the work that it did and it was careful and fair with the results it produced," Mr Russell said.

The industry also realised that when the organisation was recommending a particular product, it would have a large influence on its volume of sales.

In those post-World War II days, the focus of the Consumer Council, later renamed Consumers' Institute, was on comparing brands of products like washing machines and televisions to inform consumers about their quality.

"Today, because the market is changing so quickly, it is more a question of style, design and what is new on the market," Mr Russell said.

The testing results were already published in Consumer magazine, which first hit the streets in December 1959.

The magazine was smaller than today, and "renowned for its content rather than its design".

"It was a scruffy little publication, but perfectly acceptable for the time.

"I think Sue Chetwin [Consumer's current chief executive] has done a very good job transforming the magazine into a magazine that can stand up on the stands, where in the past it would have been definitely lost in the crowd."

Ms Chetwin said making the magazine available to the public and not just subscribers had been worthwhile.

"We've got the infrastructure in place here, so for us to print a few more magazines and pay the distribution cost is really all that it's amounted to.

"As well as selling for us, it gets our name out there a bit more."

Calling on her experience in the publishing industry, notably as editor of the Sunday Star Times and the Herald on Sunday, Ms Chetwin has made the magazine and its online version more likely to attract people's attention.

"I have certainly got some perceptions that I have developed over the years of what will work and what won't," she said.

The organisation is currently focusing on the magazine's online version, as well as other related websites.

"Our future is in the online space, so that's where we really need to turn our attention," she said.

Consumer's website was relaunched in June to provide more comparative tools and interaction between consumers.

Powerswitch, a website aimed at comparing gas and electricity prices, was also relaunched with new tools and features.

The Consumer team was looking at developing other comparison sites, Ms Chetwin said.

"They are very popular and they also enable people to make easy comparisons, particularly in the telecoms world, where there are so many plans and different services that you can be on."

The road to becoming a modern online information and services provider has been a long one.

"The organisation was a government department, and it went through various machinations," Ms Chetwin said.

"In the 1980s it was cast adrift and at that stage, for whatever reason, the Government didn't want to be involved any more.

"I think it hoped that it would die.

"But David Russell made sure that that didn't happen.

"He turned it into the organisation that it is today."

Mr Russell said it had been a "dangerous time for the organisation" as it was transformed into an independent, not-for-profit incorporated society.

"We kept going very well despite claims that at the beginning of the new era, when we lost our government funding, that we simply couldn't exist, that New Zealand was far too small to support a full independent consumer organisation.

"I'm absolutely delighted they were proved wrong."

The organisation was then reliant on delivering a service and information to the membership.

"It was the membership that dictated what we did," Mr Russell said.

Some of Consumer's major successes have happened in the past 30 years.

"There was a shift in thinking in the early 1980s, away from specific consumer protection legislation, to what I term umbrella legislation, and that came through in the form of the Fair Trading Act and the Consumer Guarantees acts," Mr Russell said.

Consumer has lost subscribers through the years, and has now had to cope with the recession.

Ms Chetwin said the organisation had "managed to keep its head above water".

"Subscriptions are not nearly as good as what they were 40 years ago, and that's really a change in society I guess.

"But we're still tracking pretty well. We've got 70,000 subscribers across the magazine and online."

Other sources of funding have been developed, such as contracts with government departments and, more recently, a licensing system for companies that want to attach Consumer's brand name to their products.

But Consumer hasn't lost its original values, Ms Chetwin says.

"The principles that it was founded on – independence, unbiased, trustworthy, accurate – all those things still hold true today.

"Our research shows that people still regard us as being that organisation.

"We are a fantastic brand."

A voice such as Consumer's was needed, she said. "In a democracy, you should have organisations like ours. We're not interested in everything being regulated, but what we are interested in is consumers actually participating in the market.

"We provide a voice in that market."

Celebrations for Consumer magazine's 50th birthday will be held in December.