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The national customer satisfaction benchmark gained 0.5 percent to 76.3 on a scale of zero to 100 for the fourth quarter of 2012, according to a report released today by the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). The rise comes from strong public sector gains combined with moderate customer satisfaction improvement for five of eight retail and e-commerce industries.
“The improvement in overall customer satisfaction is positive news for consumer demand but with the caveat that a good portion of the gain comes from federal and local government services,” said Claes Fornell, ACSI founder and author of “The Satisfied Customer: Winners and Losers in the Battle for Buyer Preference." “Looking at the economy as a whole, low inflation, shrinking household debt, and pent-up consumer demand are starting to fuel consumer spending.
“At the same time,” Fornell continued, “economic growth will be hampered by a still-tepid job outlook, low wage increases, high gasoline prices, and the economic uncertainty created by our politicians.”
Shoppers Seek the Right Combination of Quality and Value
Whether shopping for groceries, specialty goods like office supplies or electronics, or patronizing stores with a broad array of merchandise, American consumers are seeking the right balance between quality and value, with the latter becoming somewhat more important since the recession. Supermarkets show an ACSI benchmark of 77 in 2012, up 1.3 percent since 2011.
“Low price inflation for food products in 2012, combined with better service, product selection and store layouts, yields success in the form of enhanced customer satisfaction for supermarkets,” Fornell said.
Publix’s track record of leading customer satisfaction continues as the chain gains 2 percent to an ACSI score of 86. Publix widens the gap to Whole Foods, which is stable at 80 after four straight years of improvement. Kroger’s customer satisfaction is also unchanged at 79, while Winn-Dixie jumps 4 percent to 78.
Further down, Supervalu, Safeway and Wal-Mart are in the mid-to-low 70s, which suggests that even in a strapped economy, low prices alone are not enough to make customers happy. Supervalu gains 3 percent to 76 and Safeway is flat at 75. Discount giant Wal-Mart is in last place despite a 4 percent gain to 72.
“A big part of Wal-Mart’s challenge is that it is no longer the only game in town when it comes to discounting,” Fornell said. “Twenty years ago, Wal-Mart was able to beat the industry average for customer satisfaction—not because merchandise quality was better, but because it was close enough to, or on par with, competition and it had the low-price market essentially to itself. According to customers, neither is true today.”
Health & Personal Care: Big Chains Narrow Gap to Small Stores
Customer satisfaction with health and personal care (drug) stores reverses a two-year slide with an increase of 1.3 percent for 2012. With an ACSI score of 77, drug stores are similar to supermarkets, department/discount stores, and specialty retail. In 2011, smaller drug stores held a 7- to 9-point advantage over the larger chains. In 2012, a 4 percent drop to 79 for small stores narrows their lead to 2 points.
Rite Aid earns the top position among larger chains with a 3 percent improvement to 77. Walgreens is next at 76 (+1 percent), while CVS gains 3 percent to 75. Two years ago, customer satisfaction for CVS hit an all-time low amid declining sales and cost-cutting efforts. Better customer satisfaction today probably has helped revenues rise 15 percent over the past year.
Online Retail Back on Track
Customer satisfaction with online retail is up for a second year in a row, improving 1.2 percent to 82. While two minor yearly gains almost erase the decline in 2010, the industry falls short of its all-time high. Nevertheless, online retailers are still winners over traditional retailers (average of 76.6 overall).
“By and large, Internet retail remains a more amiable way of shopping for a variety of merchandise,” Fornell said. “It is worth noting, however, that there are exceptions to the rule. The cream of the crop in traditional retail—Publix, Nordstrom, Office Depot and Costco—all outperform the average customer satisfaction benchmark for Internet retail.”
The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) is a national economic indicator of customer evaluations of the quality of products and services available to household consumers in the United States. The ACSI uses data from interviews with roughly 70,000 customers annually.