Consumer Reports survey: Costco tops list of major retail chain stores

Consumer Reports

Meijer, a retailer headquartered in Grand Rapids, Mich., is generally credited with opening the first one-stop shopping supercenter in 1962, some 26 years ahead of Walmart. Today Meijer stores sell auto supplies, clothing, electronics, furniture, groceries, sporting goods, and just about everything else.

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Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

By now, so many superstores, department stores, warehouse clubs, and online counterparts offer the same goods that it’s hard to know where to shop.

To help you decide, the Consumer Reports National Research Center surveyed subscribers who told us about 55,108 shopping experiences buying a range of products at Costco, JCPenney, Kmart, Kohl’s, Macy’s, Meijer (pronounced MY-er), Sam’s Club, Sears, Target, and Walmart. For the first time, some shoppers also told us about their experiences at many of those retailers’ online stores.

The main news: Costco pleased survey respondents better than any other store.

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Whatever store you choose, try its website, too. Our respondents said the quality, selection, and value of the goods online equaled or surpassed those of store-bought purchases. Although in-person interaction is impossible on the Web, 63 percent of the online shoppers said the service they received was excellent or very good; only 47 percent of in-store shoppers rated the quality of sales help that high.

“Smart merchants not only make it easy to find products on their websites, they also provide help by phone, e-mail, or online chats,” says Will Ander, a senior partner at McMillanDoolittle, a Chicago retail consulting company. All the stores in our overall satisfaction Ratings have customer service available by phone. Sears and Kmart offer website links to online customer-service chats; Macy’s offers a chat link at checkout.

Readers also said that buying was easier online than in stores. Among shoppers who rated both walk-in and online experiences, 81 percent said the ease of checking out online was excellent or very good; just 46 percent said the same about the speed of store checkouts. “Go into a big department store around 8 o’clock at night, and it can be difficult to find someone to check you out,” says Jack Abelson, a retail consultant in Leawood, Kan. “But you can buy online at that time, and it’s quick and convenient.”

The most prevalent problems walk-in customers said they faced were long checkout lines, a lack of sales help, and out-of-stock items. Twenty-nine percent said checkouts were jammed. And no chain stood out for customer service.

To see the complete ratings for all 10 chains, including in-store and online ratings for quality, value checkout, customer service and in-store and website layout, go to

Costco was the only chain to earn an outstanding grade for the overall quality of its merchandise, whether in stores or online. And it earned above-average scores for all 10 product categories we rated, including electronic entertainment, jewelry, and sporting goods. Its website did better than its walk-in stores on all counts except product quality (for which the two types tied) and earned top marks for layout, product value, and checkout.

In-store shoppers found a few chinks in Costco’s armor: The chain’s walk-in stores scored below average for selection, checkout (because of long lines), and service, and its shoppers were more likely than those elsewhere to complain about a lack of fitting rooms.

Kohl’s and JCPenney earned above-average scores for the quality of their goods in all product categories for which we had sufficient responses. People were especially happy with the value and layout at Kohl’s stores. “Kohl’s has expanded the number of exclusive brands it sells over the past few years,” Abelson says. “That has allowed it to steal some market share from JCPenney.”

Target boasts that its stores are easy to navigate, and our readers rated its layouts higher than for some other chains. Otherwise, the in-store shopping experience was just average, and Target’s website was not especially easy to use.

Macy’s stores rated better than average for product quality and layout. Macy’s was the only chain besides Costco to receive raves for its kitchenware and personal-care products. Readers also praised the chain’s clothing and home-décor selections.

Meijer scored better than some others for layout and the quality of kitchenware, personal-care items, and electronic entertainment, but scores for its clothing were lukewarm.

Sears’ overall scores for its walk-in stores and website were similar, but the chain’s online customer service rated lower than its walk-in service. Respondents said Sears, Costco, and Sam’s Club were better places to buy hardware.

Sam’s Club stores, both virtual and real, scored about the same as Sears overall. Readers who shopped at its walk-in stores complained of long checkout lines and limited selection but rated product quality and layout as better than average.

Walmart and Kmart walk-in stores scored much lower than those of other retailers. Walmart might be associated with low prices, but respondents said the product value was better at Costco and Kohl’s. Kmart was the only chain to score below average for value. Kmart also received low marks for selection, service, and checkout speed.

Walmart was the only chain to earn below-average scores for the quality of its men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing. (Kmart received below-average scores for men’s and women’s clothing.) Walmart shoppers were especially likely to complain about long checkout lines and inadequate customer service. In addition, 23 percent of the Walmart shoppers who returned an item to one of its stores the previous year reported at least one problem, significantly more than at any other retailer. (The problem was usually that they were offered only store credit.)

In-store shoppers rated the layouts as middling for both Walmart and Kmart. According to a report by the market-research firm Interbrand, Walmart stores have actually become more cluttered since a clean-aisles initiative was started in 2009. Its goal: to pare inventory and make shopping “fast, clean, and friendly.”

Thirteen percent of Walmart and Kmart customers reported hidden or missing price tags, more than at any of the other retailers in our Ratings.

Bottom line. In almost every case, the online stores scored at least as high as their walk-in counterparts. Overall, Costco pleased readers best.


Copyright © 2006-2012 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission.

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