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Whole Foods up, Wal-Mart down in customer satisfaction survey

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Whole Foods saw customer satisfaction increase in the past year, according to a new survey.

We’ve been hearing a lot of potentially positive news about the economy lately, and that may be trickling down to the grocery store level.

A new survey finds that even though food prices are going up, Americans are more satisfied than they were a year ago with upscale grocer Whole Foods and less satisfied with discount giant Wal-Mart.

The American Customer Satisfaction Index, an ongoing study of people’s shopping preferences, said Whole Foods’ customer satisfaction rose slightly in the past year, continuing an upward trend. It’s the nation's second most beloved major grocery, after Publix.

Wal-Mart, on other hand, saw customer satisfaction fall. It’s the least popular of the major grocers in the survey.

David VanAmburg, managing director of the ACSI, said that in general people tend to favor quality over price – except when we experience a downturn as we did with the Great Recession.

“When the economy tanks, people are thinking more about, ‘How can I stretch my dollar as much as possible?’” VanAmburg said.

As the tepid recovery has picked up steam, shoppers appear to be starting to look again at factors such as store cleanliness, checkout lines and quality of produce, VanAmburg said.

“Things have improved enough that customers are looking more for quality. They’re looking for that combination of good quality and good price,” VanAmburg said.

Consumer prices jumped in January, thanks in part to high gas prices, and food prices were up slightly. But the nation’s unemployment rate fell to 8.3 percent last month, one of a growing number of signs that brighter days are coming.

A separate poll from Pew Research Center found that people are more optimistic about the economy than they were even two months ago.

In periods such as this, when the economy is showing improvement and prices are rising, upscale chains like Whole Foods have more tools available, VanAmburg said.

The store, which some call “Whole Paycheck” for its high prices, can offer promotional deals or tout its private label 365 Everyday Value line, which may make people feel better about shopping there. That can build on what people already think of as a positive shopping experience, he said.

Wal-Mart, on the other hand, is largely known for being low-cost, and that can make it harder for the chain to find other ways to attract customers when food prices are rising, VanAmberg said.

Wal-Mart has said it is making a major effort to keep costs down. In its most recent earnings call in November, the company acknowledged that rising food prices are an issue for its core customers and that it was trying to absorb some price increases.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sarah Spencer said she couldn’t comment specifically on the ACSI study because she hadn’t seen it. But she said the company works hard to please customers with such efforts as helping people choose healthy foods and sourcing more food locally.

“We survey more than half a million customers every month, and they are telling us they are pleased with their shopping experience at our stores and clubs. We continue to work to meet and succeed our customers' expectations by offering them low prices on fresh and packaged food,” she said in an email.

The American Customer Satisfaction Index is based on interviews with about 70,000 customers annually, gauging opinions on  several different industries.