By David Merrefield 
VP, Editorial Director
Last week we took a look in this space at the increasing spread between the satisfaction levels consumers attach to supermarket shopping venues in general and six food retailing chains in particular. Now let’s see if we can determine why.
As was specified last week, the American Consumer Satisfaction Index that’s issued annually by the University of Michigan showed that the satisfaction rating garnered by certain chains depart widely from the median ranking of 75. A score of 100 would indicate complete customer satisfaction. To the high side of the median is Publix, which earned the top ranking of 83 for all identified food stores measured, an increase of two points above Publix’s 2005 level. The lowest ranking among all identified retail brands was Wal-Mart supercenters, which garnered the rank of 69, down a point from the previous year. Consumers were asked about the discounter’s food offerings only.
Why should that kind of satisfaction spread exist between those retailers? Of course, much of the answer is that they are very different retailers. Publix tends to attract consumers who are willing to spend a little extra to get something a little better. It makes every effort to provide a pleasant shopping environment too. Supercenters’ chief attraction is price, but Wal-Mart is making efforts to improve quality and expedience too. Maybe it’s just that Wal-Mart’s efforts haven’t made much difference yet. Conversely, it may be that one bit of long-held conventional wisdom about how supermarkets will ultimately outdo price-oriented merchants is coming true. That wisdom was that big-box stores can’t do a very good job with perishables. More recently, that opinion was changing as such stores seemed to be improving perishables offerings. Yet, it may prove to be the case that the older view is the correct one after all.
Here’s an important clue: A study of a representative sample of consumers was issued at the American Meat Institute’s Annual Meat Conference held last month in Orlando, Fla. The study, details of which were described in last week’s SN, was conducted by AMI and the Food Marketing Institute. It showed that conventional supermarkets remain, by far, shoppers’ preferred source for meat. Indeed, nearly 71% of study respondents said they preferred supermarkets, a level a couple of percentage points higher than it was when such a study was conducted a year earlier.
Most telling was the finding that a quarter of shoppers who patronize supercenters also go to conventional supermarkets to source meat. Surely, if shoppers feel obliged to make a second stop, they wouldn’t feel too satisfied with the price-only store.
An FMI spokesman said in a statement concerning the study that “traditional supermarkets deliver a cost-quality value across the meat case to compete effectively with discount retailers.” (The AMI-FMI study didn’t mention stores by name, so the study findings could well apply to supercenters other than those operated by Wal-Mart.)
The study also highlighted the growing importance of natural and organic meat. More than 21% of consumers said they had purchased such product during the previous three months, of which nearly half purchased the products in supermarkets. Other stores patronized for such product include speciality stores (more than 22%) and supercenters (more than 10%).