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America’s grocery shoppers have spoken, and they’ve said they like their regional chains.
In Consumer Reports’ latest grocery store ratings of 96 chains, five regional grocers shared top marks for customer satisfaction. They are Texas-based Central Market; mid-Atlantic brand Wegmans; Heinen’s, located in Ohio and Chicagoland; Southern California-based Gelson’s Markets; and Market Basket (Northeast).
Trader Joe’s is the only national chain to earn our top overall satisfaction score.
Our findings on the 96 grocers—the most we’ve ever rated—are based on survey responses from more than 75,000 Consumer Reports members, who provided ratings of the one or two supermarkets they visit most often.
We asked members to judge supermarkets, warehouse clubs, and supercenters—mass merchandizers with on-premises groceries—on 13 grocery-store attributes, including cleanliness, price, food quality and variety, checkout speed and staff helpfulness, selection of healthy options and locally produced foods, and variety of international and multicultural foods.
We also rated online grocery delivery services, using a different combination of attributes than those used for brick-and-mortar grocers.
Price Counts, But Not Always
Our members told us their top reason for shopping at a grocer was low prices. Among members who quit shopping at a particular store because they were dissatisfied, one of the most common reasons stated was that it was too expensive.
Trader Joe’s and Market Basket (Northeast), both among the top six highest-rated markets, gleaned top marks on competitive pricing.
“They have fabulous prices, consistently lower than the other stores in the neighborhood,” says CR member Mary Jo Lamade, who shops at a Market Basket branch in Biddeford, Maine.
Trader Joe’s customer Rita Rogers, who lives in San Diego, says that while she’s fond of the specialty retailer’s store-brand items, she has often found its pricing on name-brand items better than at competitors. “My husband’s favorite cereal is $2.99 at Trader Joe’s and $4.99 for the same size box at the local grocery store,” she says.
Yet at the same time our members told us they prized low prices, they placed several chains with higher-than-average prices at the top of our ratings.
Gelson’s Markets, a 27-store California-based chain, for instance, was given our lowest mark for overall price competitiveness, and had a disappointing score for prices on organic options. Yet it was among the top-rated markets.
“I’m not rich but I like food,” explains Betsy Gallery, who shops in the Santa Barbara, Calif. Gelson’s. “So I don’t mind spending more. They have a smaller selection than some stores, but what they have is excellent.”
Jeff Salgo of Toluca Lake, Calif., a regular Gelson’s shopper, says he finds the fruits and vegetables at Gelson’s to be "beautiful, amazing.” He also says he finds Gelson’s only slightly more expensive than other local food stores.
Despite being rated favorably in nearly every category—and getting a top mark for meats and poultry quality—Whole Foods earned a mediocre score for overall satisfaction. The reason? Perceived high prices. CR members gave it our bottom score, a red chevron, for competitiveness of prices, and an orange chevron for prices on organic options.
A Number of Chains Are Price-Competitive
Other chains that garnered top marks for competitive prices include (in ratings order):
• Crest (Okla.)
• Fareway Stores (Iowa, Ill., Minn., Neb., and S.D.)
• Costco (nationwide)
• Military Commissary (nationwide)
• Winco (Okla., Texas and eight other Western states)
• Aldi (Calif., the Midwest, and Northeast)
• Woodman’s (Ill., Wis.)
• Lidl (Eastern Seaboard from NJ to GA)
• Grocery Outlet (Calif., Ore., Wash., Idaho and Pa.)
• Save-A-Lot (stores in 36 states)
• Marc’s (Ohio)
Breadth of Goods, Produce Quality Are Key
After price, produce quality and the variety of goods a store carried were among the most important reasons members chose to shop where they do. Central Market and Wegmans were the only stores in the ratings to excel not only in produce quality, but also in produce variety, selection of healthy options, selection of locally produced products, and variety of international products or multicultural foods.
“They seem to have more high-end, obscure things than in other places—balsamic vinegars, unique spices,” says Central Market shopper Don Rebsamen of Dallas.
Also starring in produce quality were Heinen's; Gelson’s; New Seasons Market, which operates in Oregon, Washington, and Northern California; Minnesota-based Lunds & Byerlys; and Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, operating in Midwestern states, Kentucky, Nebraska and Pennsylvania.
Organic Food Prices a Problem
Notably, not a single grocer received our top rating for the price of organic options. A handful, though, received high marks: national brands Aldi, Costco, and Trader Joe’s, and regional names Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, Grocery Outlet, Natural Grocers (in 19 states west of the Mississippi), and Woodman’s.
Burt Flickinger III, managing director at Strategic Resource Group, a New York-based consulting company that specializes in retail and consumer products, says high organic food prices are a result of numerous factors. These include not enough partnerships between major food retailers and companies that grow organic foods; a dearth of arable, certified organic farmland; and a lack of truckers nationwide.
"Even if you have a great organic crop in Southern California, the price to get a truckload to Philadelphia is now $5,500, from $2,500 a few years ago," he says. That, among other factors, contributes to high organic prices.
Three Store Brands Excel
Just three of the 96 grocers' store brands impressed our members enough to earn top marks for quality: Central Market, Trader Joe’s, and Costco.
“Trader’s and Costco complement each other,” says Rogers, the San Diego shopper. “I like the fact that the Trader Joe’s barbecue sauce and salad dressings I buy don’t have high-fructose corn syrup,” she says. "But I get the Kirkland Greek yogurt at Costco.”
Walmart Falters on Service
Our members were generally pleased with customer service; they gave just 11 stores below average scores for employee helpfulness and attentiveness.
A notable exception was Walmart Supercenter, the only grocer out of 96 to get a red chevron, our lowest rating, for this attribute. However, Walmart earned a favorable rating for competitive prices.
“This rating is not one that we ever want to have, but it is also not indicative of the overall program,” said Molly Blakeman, a Walmart spokesperson. “We appreciate your feedback, it’s going to help us make the service better overall.”
Other Grocers Miss the Mark
Walmart shared a disappointing overall score (in the orange grouping) with four traditional supermarkets, all based in the East: Acme Markets, Shaw’s, Tops, and Key Foods.
“Unfortunately, without reviewing the recent survey we are not prepared to make a statement,” an Acme spokesperson says.
“At Shaw’s, we strive to give our customers a great shopping experience,” says Teresa Edington, a Shaw’s spokesperson. “One way we do this is by offering competitive prices throughout the store.”
Edington mentioned several ways that the store helped shoppers save money, including its 3-Day Sale, personalized discounts through Shaw’s Just for U app, and its gas and grocery reward programs.
Tops spokesperson Kathleen Sautter acknowledges the negative impact that the company’s chapter 11 restructuring, recently completed, had on the public’s perception of the store.
“After having emerged with a stronger balance sheet we can now better focus on what customers want and need, invest back into our stores with remodels, and have more aggressive offerings,” she says. “We are thankful that during the restructuring process our customer base remained dedicated Tops shoppers and we will continue to work hard to maintain their loyalty.”
“At Key Food, we have recognized that the consumer is changing, shopping habits are different, and we value the honest feedback,” says Rachel Geissler, a spokesperson for the company. “We have been striving to bring new, refreshing and innovative products to the market, as well as providing consumer staples in both regular and organic options, so our customers have access to quality items delivering an exceptional value proposition.”
How CR Members Rated Grocers
These ratings are based on responses from 75,065 CR members to the Consumer Reports 2018 Supermarkets Survey, conducted by the Consumer Reports Survey Research Group. Respondents told us about their experiences at one or two stores between July 2017 and September 2018.
The survey reflects 140,106 ratings of supermarkets, supercenters, and warehouse clubs. The findings represent the experiences of our members, not necessarily those of the general population. In the ratings table, stores are ordered based on reader score, which reflects overall satisfaction with the shopping experience and isn’t limited to the criteria listed in the table.
Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2019, Consumer Reports, Inc.