Consumer Reports subscribers recently rated Wegmans, Trader Joe's, Publix and Fareway tops among 52 of the nation's major grocery stores.
While most respondents were quite satisfied with their experiences, the survey also revealed that even some of the high-rated chains gave plenty of shoppers something to complain about.
One-third of subscribers surveyed said they had given the heave-ho to a nearby grocery store. Forty-three percent changed their grocer in search of lower prices; about 25 percent cited poor selection, long lines or lousy food; 17 percent blamed employee rudeness; 14 percent, the crowds.
Of the 24,203 readers who told CR about 42,695 supermarket experiences, more than half had at least one complaint about their current store; almost a third cited two or more.
The biggest gripe overall: not enough open checkouts (cited by 27 percent of shoppers), followed by congested or cluttered aisles and advertised specials that were out of stock. Other irritants included inept bagging, missing prices and scanner overcharges.
No chains tried their customers' patience more than Walmart Supercenter, Pathmark (Northeast) and Pick 'n Save (Wisconsin), where roughly three-fourths of shoppers had one or more problems.
Shoppers who frequented Walmart, the nation's largest grocer and the chain with the most shoppers in our survey, were most likely to be miffed about the lack of open checkouts, out-of-stock regular items, indifferent employees, spotty pricing and confusing store layouts.
Fortunately, most consumers have several shopping choices, and some supermarkets give customers much of what they want. National grocers Costco and Trader Joe's, along with Fareway Stores (Midwest) and Wegmans, offer quality meat and produce, a clean shopping environment and very good or exceptional prices.
All but Costco also earned the highest possible marks for service, defined as employee courtesy and checkout speed.
And remember, supermarkets are giant selling machines in which traffic patterns, product placement displays and smells encourage shoppers to open their wallets. CR's latest report offers advice to resist both the hard and soft sell.
*Beware of sneaky sales signs. The sign might read "5 for $5," the implication being that you need to purchase the entire amount to get the discount. But rarely are you required to do so.
*Shop against the grain. Most stores have their main entrance on the right side, and their customers tend to shop counterclockwise. When researchers compared those shoppers with people who went through a left entrance and shopped clockwise, they found the clockwise folks spent $2 less per trip, on average.
*Check prices on bumpouts and endcaps. Beware of "bumpouts" -- displays and shelves that curve or jut out, catch the eye and make merchandise prominent. And when you reach an aisle's endcap, don't assume the merchandise is always on sale.
*Look high and low. Supermarkets are in the real-estate business, and prime selling space includes the middle or eye-level shelving. Vendors sometimes pay retailers hundreds, even thousands, of dollars in slotting fees to get their products displayed prominently. Check whether similar products on top or bottom shelves are less expensive.
*Don't rationalize dessert with produce. The produce department is usually near the entrance, and there's a savvy strategy behind that. In addition to imparting the message that "this is a fresh, healthy place," that placement is meant to give shoppers license to buy cake and ice cream as a reward for picking up broccoli or apples.
*Be wary of 9s. Do not be fooled if the price ends in "9." It's a practice known as "charm" pricing. Some researchers believe shoppers see a product priced at $6.99 as $6 rather than $7, making it seem cheaper.
By the editors of Consumer Reports at www.consumerreports.org.