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CERC’s Pearl Disputes DTV Study by U.S. PIRG

Marc Pearl, executive director of the Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition, took issue Friday with a U.S. Public Interest Research Group secret-shopper study that concluded that retailers were putting out misleading information about the digital-TV transition.

The study, of 132 electronics retailers, found that the vast majority of sales staffs didn't provide the correct information about converter boxes (81%) or the DTV-to-analog converter-box program (78%), while substantial minorities didn't have the right transition date (42%) or tried to upsell customers to more expensive equipment (20%).

The study was part of a flurry of activity in the run-up to Feb. 17, which is one year before full-power broadcasters will switch to digital broadcasting and analog-only sets will need converter boxes to receive over-the-air DTV signals.

"With respect to the 'study,' it is really unfortunate that it would have any credence whatsoever given its methodology flaws," Pearl told B&C. "The 'secret shopper surveyors,' for example, were sent out before the program was in place, during a time when converter boxes were not yet available and where sales associates (and we don't even know from their study whether TV sales staff or a cashier was surveyed.) may have been seasonal/holiday employees who would not have been briefed on a product not yet on the shelves.  The standardized questions cited in the report raised by the secret shoppers were so vague and ambiguous that they could not have yielded accurate answers. "

Pearl said he had tried to reach out to U.S. PIRG after an October Hill hearing to initiate a dialog but had not heard back, adding that retailers had been training their salespeople. "My concern is that this is more about causing further consumer confusion rather than help," he said of the study.

As one of the founders and leaders of the DTV Transition Coalition, Pearl said, the CERC made it a priority to get everyone -- manufacturers, retailers, broadcasters and consumer groups -- together on an education effort. "U.S. PIRG has not shown any interest in being part of that communications effort," he added.

"We urge US PIRG to put accurate and helpful information on their website about the Transition and to join the DTV Transition Coalition," he says, " and lend its concerns and considerable influence and input to the consumer education efforts more than 207 organizations (including the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the Minority Media and Telecommunications Coalition, the Hispanic Media Coalition, Rainbow/PUSH, the AARP, the National Consumers League, the National Black Church Initiative, among so many other community interest groups) are taking part in."

"PIRG stands by its data," says Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for U.S. PIRG. "We validated the survey with ten more stores in January. Got the same results as in the fall. Then, the night before it was released this week, one of our researchers purchased a converter at a Best Buy and a checkout clerk deleted the “eligible for coupon” screen that popped up automatically, and charged him full price $60. What training?"

"And as for us not contacting the industry, that goes both ways—I see they contacted the AARP and LCCR, but not us. [With] practically every report we’ve ever done, on any issue, industry accuses us of trying to scare the public, or blindsiding them, or both. It gets old. Is that all they’re bringing? We’re glad that industry is finally scrambling to do better, and we’ll keep watching."