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MILWAUKEE - Customer satisfaction with the quality of goods and services available to American consumers in the retail, finance and e-commerce sectors rose during the final quarter of 2001, offsetting a drop that began in late 2000, according to the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI).
The index, which had declined for four straight quarters, climbed to 72.6 (out of a possible 100) -- a 0.8 percent increase and the third-highest quarterly improvement ever.
Retail, which includes department and discount stores, specialty retail stores, supermarkets, fast-food restaurants and gasoline service stations, reached a score of 75. Publix Super Markets scored 81 points, which was the highest score of any company in the retail sector and the highest-ranking supermarket for the eighth consecutive year.
Department and discount stores accounted for the largest increase (4 percent) in the retail sector, with Target scoring the highest at 77.
"Deep discounting by most retailers was a contributing factor to the boost in customer satisfaction," said Claes Fornell, professor of business and director of the University of Michigan Business School's National Quality Research Center, which compiles and analyzes the ACSI data. "Customer satisfaction based on low price is often fragile and highly dependent on the company's cost structure and price concessions from suppliers.
"While Kmart, which recently filed for bankruptcy protection, may suffer the ultimate consequence from improving too little, too late and with price as a primary weapon, it did improve quality as well, but this improvement was dwarfed by reductions in price."
Among specialty stores, Sam's Club scored 78 and Costco came in at 76.
"The major wholesale clubs continue to be highly regarded for consistently meeting customer expectations," said Jack West, past president of the American Society for Quality (ASQ).
The fast-food industry, as a whole, remains at the bottom of the retail sector in customer satisfaction. Papa John's, with a score of 78, is the only fast-food company that consistently beats the retail sector average, while McDonald's finished last among all retail companies -- fast-food restaurants and otherwise -- for the 8th year in a row.
While ACSI scores for about 80 percent of the companies measured in the current report either improved or remained unchanged, individual company behavior cannot entirely explain the combined breadth and depth of ACSI growth, said the University of Michigan's Fornell.
Falling interest rates, lower prices during the holiday season, increased emphasis on customer service by slumping companies, and improvement in the buyer-seller relationship due to Sept. 11 and its aftermath are underlying forces that probably have contributed to the overall ACSI increase, he said.
The index is produced by a partnership of the U-M Business School, American Society for Quality and CFI Group, and supported in part by ForeSee Results, e-commerce corporate sponsor, and Market Strategies Inc., a major corporate contributor.