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Supermarket smarts: How does yours rate?

"Today" food editor Phil Lempert shares the latest on a new report from the University of Michigan, saying industry leaders need to improve service.

The nation's leading supermarket chains have a big problem: They're losing their ability to satisfy customers. As the public rates them lower on being able to please — not only in 2005, but in five of the past 11 years — the door opens wider for channels such as wholesale clubs, supercenters and specialty food retailers to purvey their daily staples.

The good news for supermarkets, at least for now, is that the vast majority of operators in other trade classes that sell food are doing about the same: Supermarkets and specialty stores average a 74 percent customer satisfaction rating, discount and department stores 75 percent, and drug stores 76 percent. None are in a decided uptrend.

How household consumers across the United States evaluate services from a variety of economic sectors, including supermarkets, is the basis of fourth-quarter 2005 data from the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), issued by the University of Michigan Ross School of Business with the American Society for Quality and CFI Group. Scores consistently correlate with sales growth and loyalty, and link directly to stock performance.

"The ACSI's measure of satisfaction has historically led to repeat business and increased spending, and the new data [of the overall study] suggest that consumer spending will rebound," says Professor Claes Fornell, director of the University's National Quality Research Center.

Among supermarkets, Publix at 81 percent and Supervalu at 77 percent stand out not only for their high ratings, but for their year-to-year consistencies. Whereas supermarkets overall are down from 76 percent in their baseline year of 1994, Publix remains virtually unmoved from its initial 82 percent score, and Supervalu is the same as its start of 77 percent.

By contrast, Kroger has slid from a 78 percent baseline to 74 percent in the latest measured quarter; it dipped as low as 71 percent as recently as 2003, yet rebounded to 73 percent in 2004. Winn-Dixie went from 76 percent to 73 percent, having been as low as 71 percent in 1999 and 72 percent in 2004. Albertson's has vacillated the most of the major chains measured over the years; its 75 percent baseline performance rose to 77 percent one year later, and slid all the way to 69 percent in 2004 before rebounding to 71 percent in 2005. Safeway has also been erratic, beginning at 72 percent and rising to 76 percent as recently as 2002 before arriving at its current 71 percent rating.

Notably, Wal-Mart had a high 80 percent customer satisfaction baseline in 1994 as a discount department store. However, when its separate measurement line as a supermarket debuted in 2004, it registered 70 percent, and it stayed there in 2005, trailing every other major supermarket chain measured. Meanwhile, its discount department store rating also slid to 72 percent. Clearly, size and price don't mean everything to the American consumer.

A more impressive rival food seller is Costco, the wholesale club operator, at 79 percent, is exactly where it began when its customer satisfaction level was first measured in 1999. By comparison, Wal-Mart’s Sam's Club is at 76 percent.

How do you rate your supermarket? Send me an email at Phil.Lempert@NBCUNI.com and tell me!

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to phil.lempert@nbcuni.com or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at SuperMarketGuru.com.