I knew I'd have to buy a bunch of appliances shortly after moving into the house, so I subscribed to Consumer Reports' online edition. Although it's been better than nothing, it was not as helpful as I had hoped. Here are my experiences so far.
One of the first things we bought was a dehumidifier. We went to Sutherlands, which only carries one brand of such things, in this case Frigidaire. [note: they have since switched to carrying only Comfort-Aire.] When the dust settled (so to speak) and I had time to lookat CR's ratings of dehumidifiers, I found that they did not evaluate any Frigidaire models, so I had no way of knowing how ours compared! As it turned out, the one we bought was inadequate for the size of our basement, so I went to buy the top one in CR's ratings (a Danby), only to find out that it had been discontinued by the manufacturer and replaced by a model that was (according to unhappy buyers) much louder and less energy-efficient than the discontinued one! So I bought the second-place model (a Comfort-Aire) from a mail-order place and returned the Frigidaire to Sutherlands for a full refund. The Comfort-Aire (which CR rated highly for its quietness, among other things) is louder than the Frigidaire was. Dammit!
We had a similar experience when it was time to look for a vacuum cleaner. Depending on what store you go to, vacuums are one of the easier things to test in the store because you can actually plug them in and find out how loud they are, etc. CR's tips for comparing vacuums were also helpful. But the individual ratings were mostly for models that our local retailers did not carry, and most of the models on the shelf were not rated, so we were very nearly in the dark. We wound up buying a model Eureka that was not rated, because other, apparently similar models of Eureka were highly rated. Aside from a tendency to chew the plastic off its cord if you run the cord over, we're happy with it.
Probably the best experience so far was with the TV. Jessie and I both brought TVs to the new house -- mine was a Media Center PC with 17" monitor, and hers was an 18" CRT TV -- and both turned out to be too small for our new living room. I looked at CR's ratings and found a 32" LCD made by Vizio that looked really good, but again I found that the specific model was discontinued! I could still buy a reconditioned one online, but the shipping cost nullified the discount. We stopped by the display in Wal-Mart and found a very similar model (probably the replacement for the discontinued one) for the same price, so we bought it and have been very happy with it. Not only does it work flawlessly with the Media Center and the wii, but it also picks up digital cable channels that we didn't even know we were paying for. And it's a beautiful screen, 32" of pure candy.
We had another frustration with the washer and dryer. I don't understand how you're supposed to drop $500 or more on an appliance that you cannot test in the store and cannot return if you don't like it. How are you supposed to know, before it's too late, how loud it is or how much water it uses or how long it takes to do a load or even if it gets the clothes clean? The washers have Energy Guide ratings on them, but the dryers (which use much more energy) do not! It's crazy! So we turned to Consumer Reports and found -- yet again -- that the specific models they reviewed were not for sale anywhere in town. So again we bought the closest match to the "Best Buy" model of washer... and then we bought the matching dryer even though we have no idea how it compares because CR didn't rate its predecessor. They'll be delivered tomorrow morning, so I'll let you know how they turn out.
It's enough to make me wish I could just buy everything at REI! ;-)