Consumer Reports does more than test products. Every year at this time, the editors give a shout out to company policies, practices or behaviors that help consumers and a thumbs down to those that don’t.
“We took companies to the woodshed this year for gouging consumers, subjecting them to annoying fees and for sneaky marketing practices,” said senior editor Tod Marks, who heads up the magazine’s annual Naughty & Nice List. “Conversely, we lauded others for transparency, for generosity and for overall stand-up behavior that really improves and enhances health, safety and the overall quality of life for consumers, which is what we’re all about.”
Consumer Reports points out that putting a company on its list is neither an endorsement nor a criticism of the overall company.
“In other words, we’re not rating the companies themselves,” Marks explained. “Rather we are praising or condemning a specific policy or practice or behavior that we believe either helps or hurts consumers.”
Here are a few of the 14 companies that made the Consumer Reports “Nice” list:
NICE: Southwest Airlines
Consumer Reports gave Southwest kudos for providing the most frequent flyer award trips of any big airline, according to the magazine’s recent analysis.
While many airlines are cutting back on their award programs, making it harder for people to use them, Southwest appears to be flying in the other direction.
“This is something we really like and give Southwest a hearty thumbs up,” Marks said.
Consumer Reports analyzed millions of passenger trips and found that in the fiscal year that ended in September 2014, 11.5 percent of the seats on Southwest planes were redeemed from awards. Southwest also provided the highest percentage of award-seat availability on the 25 most popular U.S. award routes, the editors found.
Jonathan Clarkson, director of Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program, told Consumer Reports that it makes every seat available for an award seat, even the last seat on the day before Thanksgiving.
Target has been on the other side of the ledger, but this year it wins praise for several policy revisions designed to benefit customers.
The company expanded the price-match policy at its stores and on its website to include all major in-store and online competitors, including Amazon.com and Wal-Mart. It also doubled – to 14 days – the time a customer has to request a price adjustment.
“This is big,” Marks said.
Target also lowered the minimum online purchase required for free shipping from $50 to $25 – not just for the holiday season, but year round. (Wal-Mart, for example, still has as $50 minimum for free shipping.)
Target also extended the return period for all Gift Registry items from 90 days to one year from the "designated event date."
NICE: Dr. Martens
The British footwear company started making boots in 1901. Today, Dr. Martens has a line of shoes – “Dr. Martens for Life” – that are reasonably priced and truly guaranteed for life. The company will repair any component subjected to normal wear and tear for as long as the person who purchased them is alive.
“With a little help from you, these boots and shoes will give you years of wear,” the company writes on its website. “Even so, they will eventually wear out. When they do, we will repair or replace them. We will go on repairing or replacing them for the rest of your life – guaranteed. For Dr. Martens, delivering value for money does not mean making things cheaper. It means giving you a product that will last.”
Here are some of the 13 companies that made Consumer Reports “Naughty” list:
No real surprise that the German automaker made the naughty list this year.
“You can honestly say VW is the cowboy wearing the black hat this year,” Marks said.
The company has admitted that it secretly installed software on nearly a half million diesel cars sold in the U.S since 2009 – including Beetles, Golfs, Jettas and Passats – that enable these vehicles to pass government emission tests while emitting up to 40 times the permissible pollution on the road.
VW owners have sued the company and the U.S. Justice Department is investigating. VW faces billions of dollars in possible fines.
And the scandal may involve even more vehicles. The EPA said on Friday that it was notified by Volkswagen AG that the software problem may involve another 75,000 larger luxury cars and SUVs sold since 2009.
Volkswagen told NBC News it is committed to finding a remedy as soon as possible.
“We want to assure customers and owners of these models that their automobiles are safe to drive, and we are working to develop a remedy that will meet the expectations of the government agencies,” the company said in a statement.
Naughty: Whole Foods Markets
Whole Foods, a grocery chain known for its social responsibility, was on the “Nice” list last year. But after being caught overcharging some customers in New York and California – by selling products incorrectly labeled for weight – it lands on the “Naughty” list for 2015.
In June, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs said the “systematic” overcharges to customers ranged from 80 cents to nearly $15. An investigation by the department found that 89 percent of the packages it reweighed did not meet federal standards for the maximum amount that a package can deviate from the actual weight.
Consumer Reports noted that earlier in the year Whole Foods settled charges of “widespread pricing violations” in its California stores by paying nearly $800,000 in penalties.
State and local inspectors found that Whole Foods did not deduct the weight of containers for self-serve foods, prepackaged foods weighed less than the amount stated on the label. It also sold items such as kebabs and other prepared deli foods by the piece, instead of by the pound, as required by law.
Whole Foods Markets told NBC News it is committed to providing information to its customers.
“Whole Foods Market is proud of its long history of providing our customers with transparency – transparency in pricing, in calling out GMOs, in animal welfare and in food sourcing," it said in a statement. "We have led the charge across all of these areas and will continue to do so. Consistent with this is ensuring accurate pricing for pre-weighed items, which we back with our 100 percent pricing accuracy guarantee. If an item is inadvertently found to be mispriced and not in the customers favor, we will refund the customer's money on the spot and give them that item for free. We hope that all grocery stores will join us in this pledge to help ensure that the industry is operating at the highest level possible across the board."
NAUGHTY: Allegiant Air
Airlines big and small are finding more ways to get fliers to pay fees for things that used to be free. Consumer Reports puts Allegiant Air, the low-cost carrier based in Las Vegas, on the “Naughty” list for its long list of fees.
There’s a 3.2 percent processing fee ($8 max) for buying your ticket with a credit card and a $13 “electronic carrier usage charge” for any ticket not purchased at an airport ticket office.
Other fees include: Up to $80 for a seat assignment made at the time of reservation; $5 for a printed boarding pass at some airport locations; $15 to $35 fee for first and second checked bag (each way) if purchased in advance or $50 to$75 (each way) if checked at the airport. There’s also a $15 to $25 fee for carry-on luggage (paid in advance) or $45 at the airport.
Allegiant told NBC News that by unbundling airfare prices, it can provide “industry-low base fares.” The airline said its average domestic one-way fare is $84 or $131 with optional add-ons, while the average fare for all the other airlines is $183 (not counting any optional fees).
“Unlike other airlines, we give our passengers the choice to pay for what they want, and never charge them for a service they don’t use,” it said in a statement. “... Even with the addition of optional services, the average price paid on Allegiant is still significantly lower than the average domestic one-way fare.
"When Allegiant enters a new market, the number of passengers flying the route often triples, while fares drop as much as 50 percent. If providing ultra-low fares and putting air travel within reach for more people is what lands us on the Consumer Report’s Naughty List of 2015, we’re OK with that."
You can read the full "Naughty & Nice" list on Consumer Reports' website.