Supermarkets: Best and Worst

Consumer Reports Ranks 52 National Market Chains

April 3, 2012 -- It's not just Donald Trump who's yelling "You're fired!"

Consumer Reports, in its May issue, says a third of its subscribers fired their supermarket in the past year. In an article titled "Best & Worst Supermarkets," some 24,200 readers get a chance to vent about 42,700 shopping experiences. More than half say they have at least one complaint about their current store, and almost a third have two or more.

The biggest complaints, says project editor Tod Marks, include markets setting their prices too high (cited by 43 percent of shoppers as their reason for firing a store), not having enough checkouts open (cited by 27 percent), having rude employees (17 percent), or not having advertised specials in stock.

Inept bagging, scanner overcharges and missing price tags round out the gripes.

Happily for shoppers, there are plenty of stores to choose from. The magazine rates 52 leading chains four ways: by service (which combines customer satisfaction with employee courtesy and checkout speed), perishables (quality of meat and produce), price and cleanliness.

Wegmans gets the best overall rating, 88; Pathmark the worst, 68.

Marks says this is the third time the magazine has rated supermarkets. Earlier rankings appeared in 2005 and 2008. Although he says found some surprises this time around, the ranking themselves have remained fairly constant.

"It's a mature industry," he explains. "These companies have had lots of time work out the kinks." The chains that make it to the top, he says, tend to stay there.

No chains, finds the report, tried their customers' patience more than Walmart Supercenter, Pathmark (Northeast) and Pick 'n Save (Wisconsin). At all three, 75 percent of shoppers had one or more complaints. Walmart, the nation's largest grocer, earned the next-to-worst overall rating (69), one notch above Pathmark. Customers gave Walmart lowest possible marks for its service, and next-lowest for its perishables.

The four best supermarkets (Wegmans, Trader Joe's, Publix and Fareway Stores), all scored high in service and in cleanliness. Shoppers' only quibble with Wegmans was price. Whole Foods and Jewel-Osco, however, got the worst price ratings of any markets in the survey.

The supermarket industry, says Marks, has responded to the "sour economy" by offering more promotions and deeper discounts. Ten percent of stores say they have added perks to their loyalty programs. At Price Chopper, a chain in the Northeast, members of the market's AdvantEdge Card program get a discount on fuel (10 cents a gallon) for every $50 they spend.

"More and more retailers are reserving their best deals for their most loyal customers," Marks says. "You can use your card the way a frequent flyer would, to build up points. You can even get cash-back at some stores. It's a very strong way for the consumer to save."

Of loyalty club members surveyed, 86 percent said they were satisfied with the discounts they received.

The other big way shoppers are saving money, says Marks, is by buying store brands.

Of respondents who said they bought store brands, 98 percent said those brands were the same quality or better than nationally advertised brands.

"We've seen stores put a huge amount of effort into private labels," he says. "It's not just canned beans and peaches anymore. You see private label specialty items -- balsamic vinegar, say, or whole-bean organic coffee. When we test, we often find that the store brand is as good as the leading national brand."

He clarifies that "as good" doesn't mean identical. "It's not necessarily a carbon copy," he says.

When Consumer Reports tested Heinz Catsup against the private label brand sold by Market Pantry, for example, it found differences.

"But both were of the same quality," Marks says. "Both fresh-tasting and well balanced."

He says that in his own shopping, he can cut his total bill by close to 60 percent, just by choosing store brands.

The article includes some surprising tips on how shoppers can avoid "traps and tricks" set for them by wily merchants.

For example, try shopping clockwise. Stores want you to shop counter-clockwise, so all position their main entrance on the right. Enter stage-left, though, says Consumer Reports, and research shows you'll spend on average $2 less every time you shop. One reason why: Enter on the right, and you'll hit the produce department first. There's a reason for that, says Herb Sorensen, a consultant quoted in the article. If you buy your broccoli first, then later on you feel justified picking up a cake or ice cream (or what the heck, why not both!) as a compensatory reward.