Publix Super Markets Inc and Whole Foods Market Inc were the top-rated U.S. supermarket chains in 2010, according to a new study released by the American Customer Satisfaction Index on Tuesday.
Consumer satisfaction with supermarkets in 2010 slipped for the first time in three years, falling 1.3 percent from a year earlier to an ACSI score of 75 out of 100.
Higher food prices were a major contributor to the decline in satisfaction, ACSI researchers said.
Overall costs for food rose 1.5 percent in 2010 after declining in 2009. Big price increases on staples like beef, dairy and produce have been particularly painful for some cash-strapped shoppers.
Publix operates in the U.S. Southeast and has led the category every year since 1994. Roughly 2,000 consumers polled during the fourth-quarter of 2010 gave Publix a rating of 84, a 2 percent decline from a year ago.
Whole Foods, which has been luring new customers with its focus on value and selection, rose 4 percent to 79. Austin-based Whole Foods recently has been the top-performing large U.S. supermarket chain as its well-heeled customers spend a bit more freely on things like organic fruits and vegetables.
Kroger Co, the largest mainstream U.S. grocery chain, was close behind Whole Foods with an unchanged score of 78.
Supervalu Inc and Safeway tied at 74.
Supervalu, which has been losing market share and struggling to get its pricing line with rivals, was down 4 percent. Safeway, which lowered its pricing to par with competitors, was up 3 percent.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc, which sells more groceries than any other U.S. retailer, ranked last after respondents gave its grocery business a score of 71. That was unchanged from a year ago.
"While supermarket chains like Publix thrive on the strength of their customer service, Wal-Mart continues to be a place where people shop because of price," said Claes Fornell, founder of the ACSI.
"Service has a strong impact on customer satisfaction, but low prices coupled with low quality do not," he said.
A separate survey from the National Grocers Association showed that the most important factors for determining where shoppers spend their money included access to high-quality fruits and vegetables, product freshness, and a clean, neat store.