According to the University of Michigan's third-quarter installment of the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), there are fewer satisfied customers this year than last: the index is down 0.1%, to 75.2 on a 100-point scale.
Claes Fornell, head of the ACSI at the University of Michigan, explains that the quarterly Index involves raw data from telephone interviews and questionnaires sent to qualified customers, crunched in a computerized model to sort out cause and effect. The customer evaluations rate the product quality and service of some 200 companies in 43 industries.
He explains that regardless of market segment or product, the questions are more or less the same. "The process is to compare the un-comparable. We need to have identical questions. We can tell whether it's a price problem or quality problem or a problem of buyer/seller matching."
The study attributes the dip to higher food prices, food being the biggest slice of the non-durables pie. Customer satisfaction with food companies slid 2%, to 81, dropping for the first time since 2005. But some companies in food gained, including Heinz, which gained 3%, to 90, the highest score for any company in any segment studied by ACSI.
Campbell Soup also gained 4%, to 83, which the study attributes to Campbell's focus on health sub-segments. Sara Lee's score fell 4%, to 82; Kraft slid 2%, to 84 and Kellogg dropped 2%, to 83.
"Heinz is concentrating more on the things that they have done best historically: ketchup, snacks and sauces. Campbell is following a similar strategy," he says.
Fornell says non-durables typically score very well in the Index, which also measures service companies. He says the reason is simply because variety of choice and low barriers to switching brands means no customer is likely to stick with something he or she doesn't like. "You are bound to see high levels of customer satisfaction in markets that function well, with enough consumer choice and low switching barriers. Unlike certain service industries, you don't have too many dissatisfied captive customers."
After sliding for two years, the athletic-shoe category saw a 4% improvement, to 79. Nike's ranking on the Index climbed 4%, to 75. Fornell attributes Nike's score to extension into X-Games sports like skateboarding and high-tech new innovations like its Nike + iPod Sport Kit, via a partnership with Apple. New Balance, Skechers and Puma got a 3% increase, to 83, while Adidas, of which Reebok is now part, slid to 77.
"Nike, in the broad sense, is moving away a bit from its superstar association and endorsement and trying, with some degree of success, to find new markets in alternative sports, and electronic technology," says Fornell.
The apparel market topped out at 82, a 3% increase versus last year, with VF Corporation garnering the highest scores, and Liz Claiborne dropping 2%, the only drop in the segment.
Although it's hard to imagine how the reverse could be possible, the beer segment also improved 1%, to 83, with just a tiny difference between Miller--the highest-scoring major brewer--and Anheuser-Busch. The firm says the merger of Molson Coors and Miller won't impact customer satisfaction negatively.