America's top stores

30,000 readers reveal the best places to shop for practically anything

Last reviewed: July 2010
Illustration of a couple with a shopping cart filled with bags and boxes from different stores
Illustration by John Pirman

Last year shoppers spent $405 billion at Walmart, 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.

For all the talk about Walmart's low prices, 30,666 subscribers we surveyed said the prices at 10 other retailers, including JCPenney, Sears, Dillard's, and Meijer, were at least as good. And bigger wasn't necessarily better when it came to the overall shopping experience. Almost three-quarters of respondents who shopped at Walmart found at least one problem to complain about, and half had two or more complaints about the store or its staff.

Walmart and Kmart scored notably lower than the other chains, but Costco stood tall. In addition to citing the warehouse club's rock-bottom prices, survey respondents praised its bang for the buck: It was the only store judged much better than average for value. In our surveys over the years, Costco has earned high marks as a source of a surprisingly large selection of goods, including mattresses, electronics, small appliances, groceries, and books. In recent years, the chain's Kirkland Signature products have often performed well in our tests.

"Costco surprises consumers with great products and brands at exceptional prices," says Will Ander, senior partner in McMillanDoolittle, a retail-consulting firm in Chicago. "They don't promise to have everything, but they do offer a true treasure hunt where everyone seems to find that exceptional item at an unbelievable price. Most customers will give you great satisfaction marks if you exceed their expectations, and Costco is light-years ahead of the other discount competitors in that respect."

Among our other findings:

  • Four chains earned outstanding scores for merchandise quality: Costco (watches and jewelry, personal-care items, hardware, home décor, kitchenware, electronic entertainment such as music and DVDs, and sporting goods and toys), Dillard's (men's, women's, and children's clothing; personal-care items; home décor; and kitchenware), Macy's (home décor and personal-care items), and Sears (hardware).
  • Target's "cheap chic" goods didn't wow everyone. Despite its high-profile partnerships with fashionistas Cynthia Vincent, Eugenia Kim, and Zac Posen, survey respondents judged the quality of Target's women's clothing and watches and jewelry below average, and the store's kitchenware, home décor, and men's and children's apparel average.
  • When it came to service, Dillard's stood out from the pack. According to Jack Abelson, president of Jack Abelson & Associates, a retail-consulting firm in Leawood, Kan., service is deteriorating industry-wide because of retailers' fixation on low prices. "The trouble today," Abelson says, "is that the staff is not trained to be anything but glorified cashiers and security guards." Shoppers at Kmart, Walmart, and Sam's Club (Walmart's warehouse club spin-off) were more likely than others to complain about the staff.
  • In addition to a lack of sales help, the most prevalent problems were that desired items were out of stock and that checkouts were jammed. In fact, 29 percent of shoppers we surveyed complained about long lines. The problems were much worse than average at Kmart, Walmart, and Meijer, a Midwestern chain of superstores.