NEW YORK: Many North American shoppers believe the experience and service they receive falls short in the grocery sector, but also reward strong performers by spreading positive word of mouth.

Empathica, the specialist consultancy, polled 16,000 adults across the US and Canada, and reported 97% of contributors valued impressive service levels when visiting grocery stores.

However, 44% of interviewees agreed the outlets they had frequented failed to meet such expectations.

"It's important for grocery stores and supermarkets to focus on developing excellent customer experiences today," Brian Jones, Empathica's VP, grocery and consumer packaged goods, said.

"Supermarket chains, in particular, often maintain similar prices and offerings. Experiences are what differentiate one retailer from the next."

More specifically, 55.9% of the panel concurred checkout lanes and queue management "never" or "only sometimes" met their needs.

Similarly, 44.1% reported that quality of service failed or only occasionally met their requirements. This figure was 42.2% for the selection of fresh meat, 41.7% when discussing fresh seafood and 41.1% for fruits and vegetables.

Another 41.5% of the sample thought that vendors had not yet created the modern, updated store formats desirable for buyers.

Elsewhere, 57% of respondents indicated the chain they visited most often appeared to be making attempts to better fulfil their requirements.

An additional 72% of women stated it was "very important" for staff to be knowledgeable about the goods sold, declining to 65% for the men Empathica questioned.

Similarly, 69% of female consumers argued having employees on hand to answer queries was a key component of the customer experience, while 59% of their male counterparts took the same view.

In-store kiosks supplying recipes, coupons and information also held a substantial appeal for 14% of females and 11% of males.

Regarding the web, an easy-to-use ecommerce site was highly valued by 23% of women, again ahead of men, logging 14%.

"It can be a challenge for grocers to manage an environment that has a distinct fault line across age, gender and other characteristics like loyalty," Jones said.

"Some consumers may demand engagement and new experiences at grocery stores, while those who have been loyal for years often resist change."

"Grocers must consider all demographics by having regular contact with customers and obtaining feedback directly."

The benefits of attaining such objectives are especially pronounced when it comes to word of mouth, the analysis found.

It revealed 72% of women and 66% of men would recommend a store if they had enjoyed a "great" shopping experience.

"Understanding the key elements of the experience that drive loyalty can give a supermarket the edge, enabling them to build out better offerings," said Jones.

Wal-Mart, the biggest retailer in the US, has outlined goals linked to enhancing its physical and internet stores, in reflection of the dual trends of localisation and digitisation.

"My top priority this year is to achieve positive comparable store sales," Mike Duke, Wal-Mart's CEO, said.

"At the same time, there's a tremendous opportunity to grow in the United States through supercenters and new formats, such as Walmart Express, in urban and rural markets."

"With our stores and low prices, we can really take advantage of mobile technology and this era of price transparency."

Data sourced from Empathica; additional content by Warc staff