Consumer Reports Trashes Wal-Mart

Last November, Vanity Fair and 60 Minutes published a telephone poll which surveyed a random sample of 1,097 Americans. When given a choice of 5 companies, and asked to pick which company "best symbolizes America today," 48% chose Wal-Mart -- more than 3 times those who selected Google. (Microsoft, the N.F.L. and Goldman Sachs were the other also-rans.)

The results of that survey could be construed to mean that post-bailout America is truly 'best symbolized' by a power-sotted corporation that exploits its workers, drains our manufacturing base, hammers our trade deficit, and floods our markets with cheap sweatshop products from China. Yes, Wal-Mart 'best symbolizes' what corporate excess has done to that America.

This week we have another survey -- this one from Consumer Reports magazine -- which surveyed 30,666 of its readers over a year's time, asking them to rank experiences and products at 11 retailers, including Wal-Mart. Consumer Reports issued this brief disclaimer: "Results might not reflect experiences of the U.S. population."

Wal-Mart will not be reprinting the Consumer Reportssurvey on its website. The results are not very flattering -- and they're not very different from a similar survey the magazine published eight years ago.

For openers: "Last year shoppers spent $405 billion at Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer. But according to a new study by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, they might be better off if they switch stores."

Consumers shop at Wal-Mart for one reason only: presumed low prices. But CR readers said prices at the 10 other retailers (which included JCPenney, Sears, and Target) were "at least as good."

Almost 75% of Wal-Mart shoppers found at least one problem to complain about, and half had two or more complaints. In terms of overall store ratings, Wal-Mart finished 10th out of 11 stores, barely nosing out Kmart at dead last.

"Wal-Mart was near the bottom of the Ratings," CR concludes. "The number of complaints about Wal-Mart's lines and narrow aisles was above average. About 44% of its shoppers had a problem with the staff if they sought help. Quality of apparel, jewelry, kitchenware, and electronics was rated below average."

Ouch!

This is not the message Wal-Mart spent $2.4 billion in advertising this past year to cultivate. Wal-Mart boasts that it serves customers more than 200 million times per week. The retailer has a bloated store base spread out over 603 billion square feet of selling space in America alone. The mantra at Wal-Mart is "fast, friendly and clean." Or as Wal-Mart puts it: "Busy moms expect a clean and efficient store layout."

But the Consumer Reports survey suggests a company whose presentation is slow and unfriendly. According to CR readers, Wal-Mart and Kmart had the least knowledgeable staffers, and Wal-Mart's cavernous supercenters were cited as "stores that were too big to navigate easily." The 2010 CR survey notes that Wal-Mart shoppers were "particularly peeved" at the cumbersome merchandise return process at the giant retailer. 20% of the returns took more time than expected, readers said. Checkout lines were worst at Wal-Mart, cited by 46% of readers who had shopped there.

Wal-Mart is stung by such criticism, because the company is obsessed with its sleek and tidy image. "As I walked through one of our stores," writes company CEO Mike Duke in Wal-Mart's current annual report, "the engineer in me loved seeing the efficiency and smoothness of how our operations executed and performed."

On the one hand, Wal-Mart tells its shareholders that it "achieved record customer experience scores for the year, reflecting increased traffic, and higher 'fast, friendly, clean,' scores." Apparently Wal-Mart didn't cross tab any customer satisfaction surveys with Consumer Reports readers.

The "engineers" at Wal-Mart may seek comfort in the fact that Consumer Reports is only seen by an estimated 7.3 million readers---while Wal-Mart has 200 million customers every week. But Vanity Fair has only 1.2 million readers, so maybe Wal-Mart needs to do some more focus groups with those "Busy Moms" who drive their bottom line.

Wal-Mart's self-serving hyperbole about efficiency and seamless shopping has become a mainstay of its culture, and is taken for granted by the media. But this week, Consumer Reports readers kicked a little dirt on that shiny exterior.