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Editorial – It’s a whole new world

The consumer universe has certainly changed over the past 28 years – and today, it’s more complicated than ever. Which is exactly why OC Magazine remains so relevant. As I prepare to step down from this position, I look back on the 28 years I’ve spent here at Option consommateurs.

In 1993, I joined Option consommateurs (then known as ACEF-CENTRE de Montréal) as editor-in-chief of Consommation – a little magazine (in French) that some of you may remember. It made quite a splash, though only 4,000 copies were printed and distributed through the network of caisses populaires (credit unions) in Quebec. Consommation attracted media attention for its field investigations. The team would denounce unacceptable situations and provide information on applicable legislation – or legislation that was sorely needed to improve things.

Most of the time, the team would decide to explore a topic after a complaint had been received by Options consommateurs. In August 1994, Consommation tested the skills of home appliance service people and produced a report we called “Des maîtres incompétents!” (incompetent masters). In August 1996, we printed an article describing the manipulation techniques used by a “personal growth” group – an investigator who was also a psychologist had attended one of the group’s seminars and was shocked to see what was going on. In the winter of 1997-1998, Consommation revealed that the scanning devices recently installed by many retail outlets would sometimes misread the price of items – in fact, the team found errors in up to 26.7% of cases.

Consommation ceased publication in 2005. I left Option consommateurs that same year, only to return five years later, this time as head of the research and presentation department. Qualitative research – the kind of research we conducted at Option consommateurs, and in fact still do – is quite similar to the investigations we would do at Consommation. In both cases, the topics were inspired by situations consumers had experienced or observed with their own eyes. In both cases, the procedure involves conducting a literature search, going to the site or finding out what’s going on there, and interviewing experts on the subject. I took pride in making sure that our research reports were clear and easy to understand, and I enjoyed presenting our findings to journalists and decision-makers.

Another common feature of the articles in Consommation and the research conducted by Option consommateurs is that both were and are closely connected to complaints made by consumers and class actions initiated by the organization. For example, articles on silicone gel breast implants that were published in Consommation led to a class action suit, and complaints about rent-to-buy companies and buy-now-pay-later finance plans led to a similar outcome and a study.

The consumer universe has continued to change steadily. While some topics, such as bank fees and barriers to new immigrants obtaining credit, remain in the headlines, the arrival of e-business and social platforms and media has led to a focus on new technologies. It was getting harder to browse through previous studies, which were few and far between if there were any at all. We also needed to review our methodologies, which were becoming more complex, and to pay particular attention to data protection, an issue of growing importance.

One of our first studies on new technologies, which came out in 2016, focused on wireless payments at points of sale. As we were testing, we had the feeling that we’d really entered a new world. In fact we had, to some extent, since this type of application was already popular with younger people but not many merchants had begun to use it.

The pace of change has only picked up speed since then. Consumers have always been vulnerable in their dealings with companies, and even more so since the advent of new technologies and Big Tech – Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple, sometimes known as GAFA. It’s more crucial than ever to look closely at contracts and make sure that our governments are providing sufficient protection. If they are not, we need to find out how to improve those protections, notably by looking at measures taken in other countries, since the problems are similar around the world. Like other consumer groups, governments and universities, Option consommateurs has done more and more research on technology-related topics – the sharing economy, the Internet of Things, smart toys, and many more.

And so our OC Magazine project came into being. OC Magazine is important because it publishes articles on complex research in plain language, making that content accessible to everyone. It’s important because it gives people who are interested in today’s society, consumer issues and new technologies the opportunity to take a step back and consider the scope and consequences of what they do. It’s important because it helps to counter misinformation.

Personally speaking, during the development process and over the two years since, I’ve enjoyed every lead I’ve followed, every interview I’ve done, every article I’ve worked on. I have greatly appreciated my contributors’ high level of professionalism. Now I’ve decided to take my leave, hoping that I’ve been helpful to the readers of OC Magazine. I wish this publication a long and productive life.