America's best supermarkets—and worst

America's best supermarkets—and worst

See how your grocer stacks up when it comes to high-quality fruits, vegetables, and store-made meals

Published: April 02, 2015 06:00 AM
Photo: Levi Brown

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 What makes a supermarket great? Years ago, the answer might have been low prices, checkout speed, or variety. Now another consideration is top-of-mind: “fresh.”

When the typical shopper makes each of 83 yearly grocery trips (running up an annual tab of about $5,400), he or she is demanding a wider-than-ever choice of healthy, unprocessed fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish—as well as more organics and local produce. The clamor for “fresh” also extends to freshly prepared meals that can be taken home.

So when we at Consumer Reports did our annual supermarket survey to find America's best supermarkets, we asked readers to rate their grocers on traditional characteristics such as service and cleanliness—but we also asked them to rate the selection of local produce and the price of organics at their stores.

We received responses from 62,917 subscribers, crunched the numbers, and discovered that the “freshest” stores tend to be the best stores overall, too. So Wegmans, a top-rated store since 2005, also gets top marks for freshness; longtime bottom-of-the-barrel Walmart Supercenter gets some of the lowest scores for freshness.

Learn about the the cost of organic food. Hint: Don’t assume that organic is always pricier.

Why shoppers got fresh

For many Americans, food is the new medicine: We believe we can eat our way to good health. As a result, consumers have become increasingly savvy label readers, wary of preservatives, chemicals, and unpronounceable ingredients. It’s no surprise, then, that since 2007 the demand for minimally processed foods with shorter ingredients lists has risen significantly, according to The Hartman Group, a consumer research firm.

“There has been a tremendous evolution in the term ‘fresh’ as it applies to super­markets,” says food-industry expert Richard George. For years, supermarket-industry insiders have lamented the decline of the “center store,” a euphemism for the middle aisles stocked with bagged, boxed, and heavily advertised products.

“There’s a growing rejection of overly processed and packaged foods, especially among younger consumers,” says Jim Hertel, managing partner at supermarket-industry consultant Willard Bishop. “They’re suspicious about food additives and so sure ‘less is more’ that they buy gluten-free even if they’re not allergic to gluten.”

On the flip side, Hertel says, young people who have grown up with higher-quality fast-casual restaurants, including Panera and Chipotle, “know quality food doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg.”

Supermarkets are taking seriously their new role in the health of their customers. In the 1980s, just two chains had a registered dietitian. Today, dietitians influence merchandising and marketing decisions in 95 percent of chains. Some stores participate in nutrition-scoring programs such as NuVal (available at Kroger, Price Chopper, and other chains); others, like Whole Foods Market, publicize food-safety commitments that include stocking only antibiotic-free meat.

Consumers’ food-safety concerns have also prompted stores to carry more locally sourced selections, Hertel adds. Some chains even display the names of their local producers, along with their family photos. Says Hertel: “There’s a sense of ‘we know them, we know their operations, and we trust them, so you should, too.’ ”

The growth of farmers markets—a fourfold increase nationwide in two decades—is also a factor, says Judy Harrison, a professor in the foods and nutrition department at the University of Georgia. She says that many people are likely to think local produce is fresher and maybe safer (though there’s no data to back up the notion), as well as more environmentally friendly because it has not been transported as far.

Though the jury’s out on how eating locally connects to health, there’s no question that fresh, unprocessed food is better for you than choosing a prepared meal high in sodium and fat from the freezer aisle of a supermarket.

Read our special report on pesticdes in produce, and learn about glyphosate, the most commonly used agricultural pesticide in the U.S. on farms.

The supermarket as restaurant

Photo: Levi Brown

What, then, explains the rising demand for store-prepared meals? “We’re increasingly time-starved,” says Sean Coary, a professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “Purchasing store-made meals buys time for the family.” To capture those “5 o’clock” shoppers (industry-speak for consumers prone to last-minute meal decisions), many grocers are developing ready-to-eat entrées, salads, sandwiches, and sushi. Some even bring a restaurant feel into the experience.

Mariano’s, a Chicago-area grocery chain, is a good example: Many of its locations offer a sit-down sushi bar, oyster bar, and wine bar. And shoppers can head home with a wood-fired pizza or even a grilled-to-order steak from the butcher.

Television also influences eating patterns and food cravings, Coary says. “Once there was only Julia,” he adds, saluting pioneering TV chef Julia Child, who expanded our vistas to new recipes and fresh ingredients. “Now entire networks are devoted to food. Food’s all around us.”

Who’s fresh—and who’s not

Wegmans is tops in many aspects of our survey.

Why can’t all stores be like Wegmans? The chain got top marks in our survey for freshness, baked goods, and overall shopping experience.

“It’s going to sound cliché, but our employees are our secret sauce,” says Jo Natale, Wegmans’ vice president of media relations. Natale also points to the fact that the chain is family-owned, not publicly traded, which “allows us to take a long-range view, invest in people, and grow at a controlled rate.”

Nationwide, stores need to do a much better job when it comes to fresh offerings. Only around six in 10 shoppers were completely or very satisfied with the quality of their store’s produce, meat, and poultry offerings. (And about 50 percent of respondents were highly satisfied with their store’s prepared food and bakery items.)

Just three of the 68 chains—Wegmans and national chains The Fresh Market and Whole Foods—earned stellar produce scores. Seventeen were below average. Eighteen retailers received low scores for produce variety, notably two big warehouse clubs—Sam’s Club (part of Walmart), and BJ’s Membership Club (in the East)—as well as Target and Target Supercenters.

Standouts for prepared foods were Wegmans, Publix, Costco, Whole Foods, and Fresh Market. Pathmark and Waldbaum’s, in the Northeast, and Aldi, in the eastern U.S., received low marks in that category.

Aldi is an anomaly: a highly-ranked chain earning low scores for most perishables. In fairness, those products aren’t a priority at the chain, which specializes in low prices. Aldi carries 1,300 of the most commonly purchased grocery items sold under their private label brands, spokeswoman Liz Ruggles says. (A mainstream supermarket stocks around 44,000 items.)

And what of Walmart, consistently one of our lowest-rated grocers dating back to 2005? This year, the nation’s largest grocer—the primary shopping destination for 10 percent of those surveyed—earned low marks in every category other than price. We contacted the company for comment and received a statement that CEO Doug McMillon originally gave at an investors meeting last October:

“Every store I go in has room to improve. I can take you to stores right now and we can walk out of that store with a list of things that we can go do better. And if we nail those, one store at a time, our short-term performance gets better.”

OK, Walmart, we’ll be watching.

'Sign' language

Stores freely use terms such as “fresh” and “local”—but most don’t mean much. “The USDA does not have standard definitions for those labels,” spokeswoman Wendy Wasserman says. Here, food insiders give their definitions:


What it means


Conjures handmade, small-batch products. Consumer research firm The Hartman Group says fast-food chains such as Domino’s, which sells “artisan” pizza, attempt “to create a shortcut to denote higher quality and premium, inverting the original meaning when it’s put in the context of mass-produced foods.”


Has myriad meanings: just picked, gathered, produced, live, or unprocessed, per FMI. Darren Tristano, executive vice president for Technomic, sees it more narrowly. “Dishes prepared during the day that they’re sold,” he says.


Might be defined by one retailer “as products from their state; another might include bordering states,” says Matt Seeley of produce company Nunes. Others, he says, might define it as “anything in stores within 24 hours of harvest.”


When seen on meat, poultry, and egg products, means that they’re minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients, according to the USDA. But the label applies only to those three foods.


Does have strict guidelines, certifying that the food was processed in accordance with Department of Agriculture regulations that promote sustainability and minimize exposure to pesticides and other synthetic materials.


Is relative, says Kathy Means of the Produce Marketing Association. “I define it as what’s being grown near me now.”

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the May 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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