With Waitrose voted the surprise winner in a BBC Watchdog poll, what exactly can we learn about consumers from the results? Noli Dinkovski reports

It was the one they all wanted to win. Representatives from the UK's leading supermarkets had been wheeled into the BBC TV studios and had already sat through the minor honours of a major shopper survey during BBC1's Watchdog last Monday. Rather predictably, Tesco had scooped most visited store, Asda won the best value accolade and M&S triumphed for quality.

But when presenter Nicky Campbell revealed that, in the heat of a recession, a premium retailer with just 4% market share had won Britain's favourite supermarket, with 21% of the vote, the surprise on all their faces was as clear as the disappointment.

The vote topped a great week for Waitrose, which was also crowned Good Housekeeping's 'Favourite Supermarket'. But just how much should the industry read into an online poll compiled for prime-time TV? Set against two other shopper surveys exclusive to The Grocer, the Watchdog survey throws up both interesting parallels and noticeable differences.

Understandably, Waitrose was elated to be crowned Britain's favourite. "This is fantastic news for each and every Waitrose partner," says senior buyer Quentin Clark, who represented the retailer on the show. "We believe in what we do as a business, and by the looks of it so do our customers ."

While those who voted for Waitrose may well be customers, however, many of them can't possibly be regular ones, say observers. "Waitrose is an aspirational choice - it's the supermarket everybody would like to go if they had the money and if there was a store close enough," claims TNS Worldpanel director Chris Longbottom. "We measured shopper penetration in Waitrose over the four-week Christmas period at 12%, and I would be surprised if it reaches 25% across a whole year."

And despite the whopping size of the survey - 36,308 people participated in all - many experts urge caution over its validity. The BBC admitted it had not weighted the results, which showed both a disproportionately high number of shoppers from Waitrose/Ocado (10%) and Sainsbury's (22%) in particular, and a disproportionately low number from Morrisons (11%) and Tesco (25%).

"It's an online poll and it's [been] conducted [using] Watchdog viewers," says Verdict Research consulting director Neil Saunders. "Without taking anything away from Waitrose, the representation is skewed towards a more middle-class group interested in consumer affairs." 

Temperature test
Even so, Saunders believes the poll is "an interesting temperature test of what's going on in grocery" .

One trend the poll picks up on is the importance of price. While convenience and quality ranked equal to price as consumers' most important factors in supermarket choice, each scoring 26%, the poll found price - at 32% - was the biggest reason why people had switched their main supermarket shop in the past six months. Quality and convenience lagged behind at 18% and 17% .

Nonetheless, it's a relatively muted picture versus an exclusive survey of more than 2,000 shoppers from Harris Interactive. It shows price, at 45%, is by far the most important consideration, and it's up from 39% six months ago.

Mintel's director of retail research Richard Perks sides with the Harris data. "I find the Watchdog result surprising, because our research indicates price went to the top of the list last summer."

Although Asda won best value supermarket in the Watchdog poll with 24% of the vote - a clear 3,000 votes more than Tesco - there were some notable regional variations in the results. In the south east, Tesco's 20% almost matched Asda's 22% vote. Meanwhile, in the 65+ age group, Asda won just 12% of votes, equal to Tesco and behind Morrisons, which secured 16%.

Victim of its own success
"Asda is seen as a good family retailer that saves people cash and is a little bit more one-dimensional in its marketing," argues Saunders. "Tesco has pushed itself in lots of other directions in recent years."

Although Tesco came third in the favourite supermarket vote behind Waitrose and Sainsbury's, it also came second as the supermarket shoppers would least like to shop in, at 13%. Only frozen discounter Iceland fared worse, at 14%.

Longbottom says Tesco is a victim of its own success. "At some stage Tesco stepped from being a great, dynamic, emerging British brand to a dominant and successful organisation that lots of us just want to have a pop at."

The finding that will worry Tesco more surrounds the 'switchers'. Of the 30% who changed their supermarket in the last year, almost half used to shop at Tesco. Clearly it has the most shoppers to lose, but with only 1% of these intending to switch back, Tesco will find it tough attracting these lost customers.

The supermarket will also be bothered by an almost equal number (23%) who are shopping at two or three supermarkets now, in a bid to chase bargains.

However, the Harris poll says 32% of shoppers are doing more bulk buying than six months ago. And a Shoppercentric survey goes further, revealing 45% of shoppers are trying to do larger shops rather than making several smaller trips.

Shoppercentric identifies four attitude groups among shoppers in the current economic environment: unaffecteds, those who seem confident their situation won't change; planners, those that haven't been affected yet, but are making changes just in case; soft reactors, those who have made small changes; and strong reactors, people who have had to make major changes.

Support through bad times
Soft reactors are by far the biggest group, at 48%. This group is switching to own-label brands, being price aware and avoiding waste and temptation, says the survey.

These trends have no doubt been instrumental to the rise of the discounters, but will a move to bulk buying work against them? No, says Aldi MD Paul Foley. "This trend says more about shopping habits than store limitation. We focus on stocking only the best quality products and selling in a straightforward way, without needless extras. Our shoppers pay for the products, not the store."

Longbottom agrees. "It's not necessarily about buying bigger pack sizes, it's also a case of buying more of the same thing if shoppers see the value in it. Discounters will benefit if it's the latter."

The biggest beneficiaries, however, are likely to be those that support customers through bad times, says Shoppercentric MD Danielle Pinnington.

"Many shoppers are learning the basics of household financial management. What retailers need to understand is that shoppers are looking for support through the bad times. If they can provide that, they will be rewarded during and after the recession with repeat business and customer loyalty."

Other revelations
Eigthy-five percent of Waitrose customers were “very satisfied”. Only 33% of Tesco’s could say the same

With 8,806 votes, Asda received 3,022 more votes than Tesco as the best-value supermarket

On quality, Marks & Spencer came top (35%). Tesco (and Asda) each received just 5%, with Aldi (2%) and Lidl (1%) even lower

Thirty percent switched supermarkets last year. Of these, a disproportionate 45% were from Tesco

Asda (17%) and Sainsbury's (17%) picked up the most ‘switchers’, though Tesco picked up 13%. Aldi (7%) and Lidl (5%) also made heavy gains

Of those who switched, just 1% plan to switch back