Publix Tops Shopper Survey, Again; Wal-Mart Draws the Crowds, Though Customers Say They like It Least, While Winn-Dixie Finished in the Middle of the Pack in Customer Satisfaction

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Byline: MARK BASCH

Many people blame Winn-Dixie Stores Inc.'s problems on Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s infiltration into the Southeastern grocery market, taking customers away from Winn-Dixie. But shoppers actually prefer Winn-Dixie over Wal-Mart. And, not surprisingly, they prefer Publix Super Markets Inc. over both of them.

That's the conclusion of an annual University of Michigan customer satisfaction survey taken on major supermarket chains, which will be released today.

Of seven supermarkets studied, Publix led the way with a customer satisfaction index of 81 in 2005. Winn-Dixie finished in the middle of the pack with a 73, and Wal-Mart was at the bottom with a 70. The average for the industry is 74.

"With Wal-Mart, people are not terribly satisfied with them, although they go there anyway," said Claes Fornell, director of the university's National Quality Research Center.

"They don't come out of that store being particularly happy," he said.

Fornell said the center asks customers their feelings about the shopping experience. But even though shoppers may not enjoy it, they will shop at Wal-Mart because of the low prices there.

"The pull is just too strong," he said.

The customer satisfaction scores in the supermarket industry have generally been stable, Fornell said. But Winn-Dixie's 2005 score of 73 is up slightly from 72 in 2004, as the company works to improve customer service after filing for a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization a year ago.

Winn-Dixie's satisfaction index peaked at 75 in both 1995 and 1996, according to the survey, which began in 1994.

Overall in the fourth quarter of 2005, the university's American Customer Satisfaction Index continued a slow and steady climb by rising 0.4 percent. The overall index measures companies in several retail, financial services and e-commerce industries.

"Retailers are starting to put more emphasis on the fact that it's really good business to have satisfied customers," Fornell said.

He can point to the home improvement industry, where The Home Depot Inc.'s customer satisfaction rating dropped 8.2 percent in the past year to 67. Meanwhile, competitor Lowe's Companies Inc. rose 2.6 percent to 78.

"Since 2001, Home Depot's stock has declined and Lowe's has gone up, mirroring the movement of their ACSI scores," Fornell said. …