I’m USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and here’s The Backstory, a look at our biggest stories from the week. If you’d like to have The Backstory delivered to your inbox every week, sign up here.
David Ellerby presents nine aluminum pans, each filling with a different brand of kitty litter. Then he pours five teaspoons of fox urine on each (that’s what the average cat consumes each time).
Then he wraps each pot in a giant plastic bag and seals it. He will come back a few hours later with an air quality meter and determine which brand absorbs odors the best.
Ellerby is the Chief Scientist of Reviewed, the branch of the USA TODAY Network that evaluates and reviews thousands of products each year.
But first, the best of the best 🏆
The 2021 Best of Year Awards reviewed celebrate editors’ choices for outstanding products in various categories this year. Watch the video here.
How we find the best products and offers
After our experts have tested and selected the best products, our editors research the best deal on this item. The combination of quality and price leads to our ‘best of’ lists: the best mixers, the best grills, the best air fryers and yes, soon, the best kitty litter.
Ellerby has a tabby cat named Pepper at home. “So maybe I’ll switch brands depending on what I find in a few minutes,” he laughs. “It’s going to be a mixture of excitement and horror, I think.”
This week, the days before and after Black Friday and Cyber Monday are among the busiest at Reviewed. Staff have tested approximately 2,000 products this year, many of them in their 24,000 square foot lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. These tests form the basis for reviews, gift guides, and other stories. (Other items may be on a list if they receive meaningful positive reviews from real users.)
Ellerby helps design the tests to ensure that the results are believable and reproducible. For larger items, like dishwashers or refrigerators, they will use industry testing standards. For smaller or more unique items, they will offer their own (often fun) testing platforms and protocols.
Review’s TikTok videos show staff setting aprons on fire, training on rowers, and testing fryers while frying Oreos.
“I am a professional scientist accustomed to digging and interpreting scientific and technical literature,” said Ellerby, who has a background in physiology and biomechanics. “So the tests that we do are very science-based, they are developed in a way that can be completely replicated. And that allows us to guarantee our data one hundred percent.”
Reviewed does the research for you
The articles reviewed include links to online stores so that users can purchase the articles easily. And the company collects a commission on many items sold. Corn editor-in-chief David Kender makes it clear that never influences what items make a list, or what store links are included.
Reviewed always sends users to reputable companies with the best price, whether or not they have a financial deal with them, Kender says. The cost of the item remains the same for the customer, with or without commission. A financial disclosure appears on each revised article.
Reviewed either pays for all the products it reviews (spending about a quarter of a million dollars each year) or they will test a product on loan and return it to the manufacturer afterwards. Products only make a list if they’re good, says Kender. He is known to have said, “There is no such thing as a good deal in a bad product.”
“Most of the time, the problem to be solved is that someone has to buy something,” he said. “I need to buy a new umbrella, a new coffee mug, a gift for my niece. We want to get right to the point as quickly as possible, deliver the recommendation to them, make sure it’s from a legitimate retailer at a good price. And at the same time, try to emphasize that we know what we are talking about. We did our homework, here’s a pic of us testing it out. And so please move forward with confidence. “
And all the staff take part in the criticisms. Some products are best rated in the field, which often means home. Kender has already spent three months trying different electric toothbrushes.
“My teeth have probably never looked so good,” he said.
He also once happily tested the duct tape. The examination revealed that Kender “has had an unusually strong affinity for duct tape since childhood.”
Once the best articles have been chosen, Kate Ellsworth’s the team starts looking for the best deals.
“So our absolute favorite robot vacuum is on sale. Awesome. We’re going to tell our readers about it,” said Ellsworth, chief commercial content editor. “Once all the product testing is done and we have what we like and what our experts recommend, we take that and teach people how to buy them on sale … how to shop at different retailers and at different prices. “
The best products of the year
In time for holiday shopping, Reviewed gathered last year’s reviews and created the Best of the Year awards, naming the best products in 10 categories, from pets to tech to cooking.
Kender showed them off at a video awards show, complete with a tuxedo, fancy envelopes and canned applause.
What are their personal favorites?
Ellsworth worships what she calls the Big Blanket, a 10ft by 10ft “cult favorite”.
“After living with the Big Blanket for a full year, using it almost every day during the colder months to lounge on the couch, sleep under and build blanket forts, I can say that I am now a proud member of the Big Cover cult, even though my husband tore a muscle on day one, ”Ellsworth wrote in his review.
She also recommends anything that can be delivered digitally, given supply and shipping issues in some areas. She highlights Black Friday deals on streaming services, online courses, or things that will be delivered throughout the year.
“Bouqs is a flower delivery service and you can have flowers delivered to you every month,” she said. “So I got this for my mom for Mother’s Day and she forbade me to cancel it.”
Kender says he’s “a toy sucker because I have a seven-year-old.”
“The Harry Potter and Star Wars Lego advent calendars are amazing,” he said. “But they’re going so fast and I’m going to really try not to buy myself something that I absolutely don’t need this year.”
Wait, I thought it was for the seven year old?
“We would share,” he laughs. “Half the fun of being a parent is that you can play with toys again. “
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Nicole Carroll is the editor of USA TODAY. Contact her at EIC@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter here. Support journalism – subscribe to USA TODAY here. (Black Friday deal: $ 1 per week for 52 weeks.)