Robert Krughoff, founding father of Shoppers’ Checkbook, dies at 80

Shortly after exiting a Prince George’s County dealership for the third time in two weeks, Robert Krughoff found that his car was still unrepaired. Soon, he knew, he’d have to go back a fourth time—or, better yet, find another store.

“There should be a way to find out who is doing good service work, not just what the good products are,” he later recalled.

Mr. Krughoff, then a 29-year-old federal official, had always been keen to find a deal. He was, he admitted, the kind of person who would get estimates from half a dozen companies before buying lumber, installing carpet, or waterproofing the basement of his Capitol Hill townhouse.

If Consumer Reports could test and rate products nationwide, he thought, there was no reason why a local publication couldn’t rate local businesses and services to help readers avoid the kind of fiasco he encountered. when he tried to get the engine of his Opel Kadett Coupé Fest.

Four years later, in 1976, Mr. Krughoff brought his shopping guide to life and published the first issue of Washington Consumers’ Checkbook, an ad-free semi-annual magazine published by a non-profit organization he ran on K Street NW.

Long before the creation of sites like Yelp and Angie’s List, the publication served as an essential resource for readers looking for recommendations on service providers ranging from plumbers to funeral directors to dentists.

Mr. Krughoff, who was 80 when he died at his home in Washington on February 26, spent the next half century building his organization into a force for readers across the country.

Checkbook, as it is known, now covers seven regions from Boston to Seattle and claims to attract more than 190,000 unique visitors to its website each month. The organization is still trying to prevent customers from being ripped off, an issue which Mr Krughoff believed was “as big a problem as it was” when it started.

“Amazingly, there is very little correlation between quality and price,” he told the Washington Post in 2022, a few months after retiring as president of Checkbook’s parent organization, the Center for the Study of Services.

Before founding Checkbook, Mr. Krughoff had little experience in publishing other than helping out a student newspaper in the Bronx during a brief stint as a junior high school teacher. Nevertheless, he knew something about the evaluation of services. At the US Department of Health, Education and Human Services, he was director of the newly formed Office of Research and Evaluation Planning, which, among other things, examined the effectiveness of community health centers and child education programs.

“I didn’t know exactly what I was getting myself into,” he told The Post in 1979, looking back on the transition from government work to a simple, not-for-profit enterprise, in which he and his staff sometimes resorted to salvaging office furniture off the street. “It’s a bit of a switch from having two secretaries waiting to take dictations from you to carrying your own mailbags to the post office.”

Within a few years of its founding, Checkbook had 20,000 subscribers in the Washington area and six full-time employees. His guides were based on reader polls as well as independent research, with employees “buying undercover,” as Mr. Krughoff put it, to compare prices at local companies. The publication also spoke to those in the know and interviewed ministers for a guide for funeral homes and paramedics for a report on emergency room care.

Some companies complained about the results, questioned Mr. Krughoff’s review process, or complained that their valuations were too low. But subscribers remained loyal, and Checkbook eventually expanded to launch a car buying service, CarBargains, and a guide for top doctors and other healthcare providers.

Checkbook’s work has been widely cited by mainstream news outlets, and Mr. Krughoff has been cited by publications such as The Post and New York Times for giving advice designed to help readers choose a retirement account, health insurance plan, or long-distance phone connection. Eager to share his insights, he was even willing to talk to people on the phone—perhaps through car dealerships or exterminators or tailors—regardless of whether they subscribed to Checkbook.

“I’d rather talk to them all day,” he told The Post in 2006, “than not let them use this resource.”

Robert Merrill Krughoff, the younger of two children, was born on October 11, 1942 in Dallas. He grew up in White Plains, New York, where his mother was a high school English teacher. His father worked for the Community Chest non-profit charity network, now known as the United Way.

Mr Krughoff said he learned the importance of finding a good service provider as a teenager when he went to the dentist and had what he later described as the worst consumer experience of his life. “There should have been a picture of my bottom teeth in the newspaper saying, ‘This is the work of Dr. …'”, he said.

In 1964 he received a bachelor’s degree from Amherst College in Massachusetts. He graduated from the University of Chicago Law School three years later, but found that he was more interested in legal theory than practice and gave up his legal career to try his hand at teaching. In 1969 he moved to HEW, today’s Department of Health and Human Services.

Five years later, he founded the Center for the Study of Services and started the organization with the help of approximately $50,000 in grant money from the Cafritz Foundation, the US Office of Consumer Affairs, and the Consumers Union, which allowed him to expand the Washington area measure subscribers via an ad in Consumer Reports magazine.

“That was a huge boost,” said Mr. Krughoff. “All we had to do was pay for the questionnaire to be printed ourselves, but the whole trip, in and out, was free.”

The first issue of Checkbook, dedicated exclusively to healthcare, ran 112 pages and sold at newsstands and bookstores for $4.95. The next few issues were also organized around a single theme: cars, home maintenance, finance. Checkbook expanded into the San Francisco region in 1981 and added five more regions in 2003.

Due to his temperament alone, Mr. Krughoff was perhaps ideally suited to lead the organization. Obsessed with research and extremely skeptical of “too good to be true” business claims, he devoted himself to finding the best service or product, regardless of convenience. “He’s going to Philadelphia for a used car,” the Post reported. “His employees joke that he would travel five times further than average to save $10.”

Checkbook made headlines after it sued the federal government in 2006 for access to Medicare claims data as part of an attempt to scrutinize physician performance nationwide. The group hoped the records would allow it to identify medical providers with particular expertise and uncover fraud and abuse while analyzing which doctors ordered unnecessary testing or hospitalizations. Medical groups said the disclosure would violate doctors’ privacy and result in an inaccurate picture of their work.

A lengthy legal battle ensued. A federal judge in Washington sided with Checkbook, but his ruling was overturned by an appeals court in 2009. Five years later, Medicare officials announced they were changing their data policy and began releasing statistics that offered insight into physician billing practices.

Mr. Krughoff’s death was confirmed by his wife, the former Gayle Gehring, whom he married in 1966. She said his health had deteriorated since late December, when he suffered a fall. In addition to his wife from Washington, survivors include two children, Alex from Washington and Anna from San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua; a sister; and three grandchildren.

Before the fall, Mr. Krughoff was still playing tennis and working in the house and in the neighborhood. According to his wife, he established a municipal pickleball court on Capitol Hill; poured his own concrete in the backyard; and painted myself.

He prefers to do the work himself, he said, although Checkbook recommended many people to hire.

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