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Amazon, Netflix Score with Consumers; Walmart Not so Much

Consumers are happier with U.S. retailers, particularly of the virtual kind, but Walmart (WMT), Macy's (M) and Kohl's (KSS) have work to do.

Those are the findings of the the American Consumer Satisfaction Index, a study developed at the University of Michigan and administered by ACSI LLC.

Retailers generally improved in the most recent ACSI consumer satisfaction index with TJX, (TJX) Publix (PUSH), and Dollar General (DG) having particularly good outings. The study is an analysis of consumer satisfaction with the quality of goods and services offered by 200 companies, including 35 top retailers.

Dollar General advanced by almost five and a half percent to an index rating of 79 on a scale of 100, the largest gain in the discount and department store category. Sector leader Nordstrom (JWN) did pretty well, too, up almost four percent to 83. Target, which finished in second position, also gained four percent, to 80, as did Dillard's (DDS), which scored 78.

Among specialty retail stores, TJX gained almost seven percent, the largest advance among retailers, to an index rating of 78, while Office Max (OMX) made the next greatest gain, up a little more than four percent to 77. Lowe's (LOW), which just reported some nice quarterly results, also rose almost four percent, to 79. Sector leader Barnes & Noble (BKS) gained a little over one percent to achieve a 84 rating.
After Publix, up almost five percent to a sector leading 86 rating, Walmart had the second biggest gain in the supermarket category, up about four and a half percent to 71. Its gain was a bit more than Supervalu's, as that company was up just over four percent to a 77 rating.

In an interesting twist, Walmart gained more as a supermarket than as discount store. It only advanced in discount/department store category by one and a half percent to another 71.

All that being said and done, nobody but Publix posted numbers like Internet retailers. Sure, their advances were small this year but they only can go so much higher. Netflix came in at the top with an 87 rating followed by Amazon (AMZN) and Newegg (EGGZ), each with an 86. Netflix (NFLX) had the biggest gain in the category, up almost two-and-a-half percent, followed by eBay, up a bit over one percent to 79.

While the overwhelming majority of retailers saw some gain, the advances weren't universal. Newegg's 86 was a one percent decrease in satisfaction score. Surprisingly, Costco slipped noticeably, falling two-and-a-half points, to 81. The popular retailer may be suffering from the expectations of more service-oriented consumers who switched to it in the recession.

Walmart's improvement might be good news except that more might have been expected with its expansion of the Project Impact initiative, which was designed to make stores more attractive and efficient. Given that much of the effort has been focused on electronics and home departments, Project Impact may not be impressing Walmart customers as much as had been hoped, at least not yet. The recent weakness in comparable store sales also suggests that shoppers are reserving judgment.

Macy's also is in the midst of a major effort to boost customer satisfaction by vesting more control over product assortment in the various regions where it operates. Yet, its satisfaction rating fell more than four percent. It's worth considering, though, that the local assortment initiative was launched in response to criticism from customers of stores such as Marshall Field in Chicago that Macy's acquired over the past decade and placed under its own name. Some residual resentment to the move, which was particularly acute in Chicago, may remain. So Macy's ACSI score next year, when the local program is more established, may be a fairer test.

Kohl's also took a hit, down by a bit over one percent to a 79 rating. Kohl's has been doing pretty well, adding brand names and inviting celebrities like Britney Spears, to represent its lines. Yet, despite its generally good results over the past decade, Kohl's does seem to fall out of favor with consumers from time to time. Maybe it's because in traditional terms, it doesn't offer the same degree of service as many of its competitors and maybe because its stores get a little overstuffed with merchandise sometimes and a little understaffed with people.

The success of Dollar General and online retailers suggests that consumers are using different measures to rate various retailers, but they also seem to hold stores accountable to the standards they set. And shoppers may become pickier about service standards as the recovery advances.