We’ve used ConsumerBase to gather and analyze consumer opinion in order to publish netnographies on five large supermarket chains: Kroger, Publix, Safeway, Trader Joe’s, and Wegmans. This post combines findings from all five netnographies into a meta-analysis of the supermarket business that provides a short description of an “ideal supermarket” from the point of view of the consumer.

Three prevalent themes appear in all the supermarket netnographies: store brands, price and selection. Consumers’ opinions in these three areas basically determine their opinion of the supermarket as a whole and thus their decision to shop there or not. Given that, we’re offering the following insights for supermarkets that reflect how consumers would like them to handle store brands, price and selection.

Store Brand Quality Is Critical

All the supermarkets offer their own store brands in addition to (or in place of, which many consumers don’t like) nationally advertised brands. Consumers compare store brands in one supermarket to those in other supermarkets and to the nationally advertised brand of the same product, and if the comparison reflects unfavorably on the brand at the store where they’re shopping, they comment about it in social media.

Given the attention consumers pay to store brands, it’s obvious, but important, that a supermarket develop high-quality, good-tasting products to sell under its own brand name.

It’s worth noting that the single most-positive response in the five netnographies was to Trader Joe’s store brand (61 percent). The lesson for other supermarkets: One clear way to improve consumers’ opinion of your chain, and, in theory, boost business, is to improve the quality of your store brand relative to other store brands and even nationally advertised brands.

Here’s an example of a sound bite expressing a consumer’s enthusiasm for Wegmans’ store brands.

  • Quote: Originally Posted by Junia Unless I can get a good deal on the name brand I just buy Wegmans brand. In some cases I even prefer their product over the leading brand. Wegmans brands are really good… I only buy their laundry soap now. (source)

This sound bite illustrates how a poor-quality store brand at one supermarket can be the reason a shopper decides not to shop there.

  • Safeway mango/peach salsa sucks. Now I know better than to stray from Trader Joe’s. (source)

Price Matters—A Lot

It’s no surprise that price is one of the three most common themes in consumer chatter about supermarkets. In fact, the single most-negative response in the five netnographies was to price at Publix (35 percent).

The lesson on price is tied to the store brand theme: To win over consumers, make store brands a good value compared to other chains’ store brands. Of the three themes, price may be the quickest and easiest to “fix,” by simply doing comparison shopping and adjusting prices to be more competitive. (However, that’s fixing it from the consumers’ perspective, not necessarily from the perspective of the supermarket’s bottom line.)

Here’s a positive sound bite on price: Note that it links quality and price for the store brand.

  • Trader Joes is great! Their brand of foods are great quality with a great price. Some items are about half the price of what you can find them elsewhere. (source)

This negative sound bite reflects the widespread opinion about Publix prices.

  • It really blows my mind. I can only imagine how wonderful SC could be with respectable leadership. – Publix is ludicrously expensive. Pretty stores, though. – Yay for having Mayfield ice cream!

Better Selection Equals Repeat Customers

It seems that a supermarket is often unfairly criticized for having a poor selection because it didn’t have the one (often unusual) item the consumer wanted to buy. No store can stock everything. In fact, it’s ironic to note that Wegmans was criticized for having stores that are too big, and yet was still criticized for its selection. Apparently, even the biggest stores don’t have a wide enough selection to make all consumers happy.

More often than not, however, complaints about selection relate once again to store brands. Consumers want to find both the nationally advertised brand and the store brand and be able to choose between them, based on quality, price or simple personal preference. The lesson for supermarkets is: Continue to offer nationally advertised brands alongside your store brands; don’t replace one with the other. That sounds straightforward, but I know supermarket merchandising is complex, with strong competition for shelf space, manufacturers paying for shelf space, promotional considerations and much more.

This Kroger shopper, for example, notes that the store carries both its own brand and the national brand and was able to choose between them based on price.

  • And plenty of the basic bounty. And everyone must have stocked up on the Dawn from the last couple of times because this is the first time I’ve been able to get any. I didn’t get the hunts tomatoes because the kroger brand was cheaper, but they had plenty there [hunts tomatoes]. And the clorox was 1.99 instead of 1.50 so with the coupon would have been .99 so I didn’t get that either. If my math is right it is cheaper at Sams.

This consumer dinged Safeway for selection; in this case, it was for not having common products in stock.

  • Safeway had neither raspberries or Mini Eggs. I’m devastated. What kind of grocery store doesn’t sell groceries? Safeway! (source)

An Opportunity for a New WebVan?

This analysis makes me wonder if there’s an opportunity for another online grocer to emerge, like Webvan, which delivered groceries to homes and was popular with consumers, but went bankrupt in 2001, largely due to overinvesting in infrastructure.

Yet the concept of an online grocer could fit the recipe for an ideal supermarket in important ways. Given its ability to serve a large audience, couldn’t it offer the widest selection possible, at the lowest prices (due again to large-scale effects), with the best store brands?

Alas, there are other problems with an online grocer—such as getting the fulfillment costs to a manageable level, which is what doomed Webvan. Just goes to show that consumer insights are only part of the equation for business success.

Recipe for The Ideal Supermarket

So what does the ideal supermarket look like? In a nutshell, it offers high-quality store brands that are priced below nationally advertised brands but the same or lower than store brands at other supermarkets. It stocks its store brands in addition to—not in place of—the national brands. And it offers a wide selection of products, being careful not to run out of common products, which annoys shoppers and forces them to go elsewhere for basic purchases.

But that’s clearly a generalization, and there’s no such thing as an ideal supermarket for everyone. Trader Joe’s is a good example: They have a specific niche, they know their target shopper, and they have tailored their store brand strategy, price and selection to that audience. (For example, they don’t stock the national brands, but their shoppers don’t see that as a negative; in fact, they come there for the TJ’s brand.) As a result, Trader Joe’s doesn’t appeal to everyone, but consumers who shop there regularly love it. Their formula for success is one other supermarkets should study: You can’t please everyone, so decide whom you want to please and structure your business accordingly.

Thanks to my research team for help with this post.

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