Customer satisfaction just treading water

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Like the national economy, customer satisfaction seems stuck in a holding pattern. And that may mean retailers shouldn't expect a pile of extra gifts under the tree this year.

"In an economy that depends heavily on consumer demand, it is hard to envision rapid growth given a flat trend in customer satisfaction that is coupled with only tentative improvement in wages and employment," said Claes Fornell, founder of the American Customer Satisfaction Index and a professor of business administration at the University of Michigan, in his analysis of the data. The index held steady for the third consecutive quarter, scoring 75.9 out of a possible 100 points.

There's no indication that the unchanged satisfaction levels will slow consumer demand, in his opinion, but they won't rev up spending either.

The uncertain financial environment has made customers particularly sensitive to prices, he said, a fact that may have helped food companies with their individual rankings. Different industry sectors are examined during different quarters of the year.

While Pittsburgh-based H.J. Heinz Co. held onto its position as the food company with the highest satisfaction score -- maintaining the 89 that it received last year -- several other food manufacturers improved their marks. Quaker's score rose 2 percent to hit 86, while both Hershey and Nestle rose 1 percent to a score of 85. ConAgra was up 1 percent to 84.

"Over the past year, food prices have risen far less than the overall Consumer Price Index, which is up 2 percent," said Mr. Fornell. He said shoppers may start to see food prices go up more next year as the effects of the 2012 summer drought begin to kick in, and that may hurt satisfaction levels.

In the pet food category, Del Monte Foods' score rose 5 percent to earn an 86, the highest score. The San Francisco company, which has a regional office on the North Shore, was credited by those surveyed with offering a good value and introducing new products. Del Monte's pet brands include 9Lives and Kibbles 'n Bits.

Steady prices were also a factor in that category's overall strong showing, according to Mr. Fornell's analysis.

Meanwhile, evidence that rising prices don't make consumers happy came in the apparel category, where the overall industry ranking dropped. "Over the past 12 months, apparel prices have risen at a rate that is nearly four times the amount that food prices have increased," said Mr. Fornell. Raw material costs for clothing have gone up, he said.

Data for the satisfaction index are gathered by interviewing about 70,000 customers annually.

In other efforts to track consumer sentiment, New York-based Experian Marketing Services on Monday said its surveys found confidence in the first half of 2012 was stronger than at any time since the start of the Great Recession. The survey polls 25,000 adults annually.

Affluent customers are also feeling better, according to research by Stevens, Pa.-based Unity Marketing. Based on a survey of more than 1,200 consumers with an average income of $290,000 in mid-October, more than half felt they were financially better off than 12 months ago.

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Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2018.


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