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Even online stores are struggling to satisfy picky customers



When it comes to clicks versus bricks, a new report shows customer satisfaction with online shopping is actually down from last year — while supermarket customers report an increase in satisfaction. But the war isn’t won yet.

The internet remains the most satisfying place to shop, though online retailers showed “signs of strain” and dropped 1.2 percent to score an 82, according to the new American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) Retail Report.

This suggests that “despite its place atop all retail industries, there are still improvements to be made,” the report noted.

While supermarkets and drugstores have figured out how to keep their customers satisfied — at least for now — department stores, discount stores and specialty retailers are slipping. The retail sector as a whole scored 78.1 out of 100 points, down slightly from an all-time high of 78.3 a year ago.

“As the volume of internet sales grows, we’re seeing some challenges to keep up with the demand,” said ACSI Managing Director David VanAmburg. “Online retail still has much better satisfaction than brick-and-mortar, so there’s nothing for internet retailers to be overly concerned about, but it’s certainly something they will need to be watchful about as we move forward.”

The ACSI Retail Report 2017 is based on interviews with more than 50,000 customers chosen at random and contacted by email between January 5 and December 13, 2017.

Department and discount stores continue to struggle

Customer satisfaction with department and discount stores dropped 1.3 percent since last year for an ACSI score of 77. Faced with strong online competition and dwindling foot traffic at shopping malls around the country, nearly every large retailer in this category saw weaker customer satisfaction.

“We’re seeing a drop in convenience of store locations and hours, which is not surprising because many of these big retailers have been closing stores,” VanAmburg told NBC News. “We’re also seeing a decline in the speed of checkout, store cleanliness, and less frequent sales and promotions — which definitely upset consumers.”

Costco tops the list with a score of 83 (unchanged), followed by Nordstrom at 81 (up 1 percent). Three superstores tie at 80 for third place: BJ’s Wholesale Club, Sam’s Club, and Fred Meyer (Kroger). Dillard’s, which took first place last year, dropped 5 percent to 79. That puts it on par with JCPenney, Kohl’s and Meijer.

Related: Walmart announces raises and bonuses — and store closures

Macy’s and Target both dropped three percent to score a 77, but Target still trounced Walmart — which once again was at the bottom of the list at 71, down 1 percent from last year. Walmart is working to build its online business, “but according to customers, it still lags competitors in many aspects,” the ACSI report noted.

Sears, which closed about 400 stores in 2017, saw satisfaction fall 5 percent to 73. To boost revenue, Sears is now selling its popular Kenmore home appliances on Amazon.

Dollar Tree (77, down 4 percent) beat Dollar General (73) which landed in second-to-last position after falling 6 percent from last year.

Specialty retail stores also suffer

This category also dropped 1.3 percent from last year, with an ACSI score of 79. However, staff at specialty stores outperformed every other retail category. Customers said they provide excellent service — helpful and courteous — and have a deeper knowledge of the products. The biggest complaints about these stores: items that are out-of-stock and the scarcity of sales and discounts.

L Brands (Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Body Works, PINK) led the pack with a score of 85, a jump of 5 percent. It was also the most improved specialty retailer. The report noted that L Brands has been reinvigorating its brick-and-mortar stores, devoting 70 percent of its investments to renovations and expansions.

Cabela’s made its debut in this year’s ACSI report. The outdoor recreation store came in second with a score of 82. O’Reilly Auto Parts, another new ACSI entrant, tied Barnes & Noble (81) for third place. O’Reilly beat Advanced Auto Parts (79) and AutoZone (78).

Bed Bath & Beyond, Menards and TJX tied at 80.

Abercrombie and Fitch jumped 4 percent to 79. This is due in part “to a strategic brand overhaul that appears to be more inclusive, with updated designs for a broader range of body types,” the report said.

In other categories: PetSmart (79) moved ahead of Petco (77), Footlocker and Dick’s Sporting Goods tied at 78, and Lowe’s (78) pulled ahead of Home Depot (76), which dropped by 5 percent. Both Staples (78) and Office Depot (77) saw customer satisfaction drop 3 percent. Toys R Us gained 1 percent to score a 78.

Supermarkets up their game

Nearly every food retailer did better this year, as customer satisfaction with supermarkets rose 1.3 percent to 79. Supermarkets have expanded the variety and selection of their merchandise — including higher quality products and prepared food — and most now offer more organic products. Better customer service and frequent sales and promotions also drove up the scores.

“Supermarkets clearly understand that they have to step up their game,” VanAmburg said. “They need to make sure they have all the brands anybody could reasonably want — and actually have inventory on the shelves — and then offer the sales and promotions to get people into the store.”

Publix with an ACSI score of 86 (up 2 percent) took the lead this year from Trader Joe’s (85, down 1 percent). This makes Publix, the employee-owned grocery chain, the top-scoring company in the entire retail category.

Even though Trader Joe’s could not sustain its record high from last year, the ACSI report said customer satisfaction with the store is still “extremely high for a brick-and-mortar retailer.” In fact, Trader Joe’s matches Amazon’s score in the internet retail category.

Aldi and Wegmans (84) tied for third place, just ahead of Costco and Texas-based H-E-B (both 83) and Sam’s Club (82). Midwestern chain Hy-Vee and Kroger both gained 3 percent to score an 81 and tie Whole Foods (unchanged). It’s too soon to gauge the impact of Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods. BJ’s Wholesale Club had an 80.

Walmart takes the bottom position in this category again this year, dropping 1 percent to 73.

Internet retailers

A bit of a surprise here, as customer satisfaction with internet retailers dipped 1.2 percent to 82. Even so, online is by far the most satisfying way to shop. The ACSI report says the decline is the result of weaker scores with the biggest and smallest online retailers, many of them run by brick-and-mortar stores. Amazon, which controlled 38 percent of the online holiday shopping season, according to Slice Intelligence, saw its ACSI score drop by 1 percent to 85. Newegg (83) and eBay (81) were unchanged from last year. Overstock jumped 3 percent to tie eBay at 81.

Customers said the variety and availability of merchandise at online stores is down, checkout and payment isn’t as easy as it was a year ago, customer support was seen as declining, and buyers aren’t as happy with shipping options. Product images and customer reviews were seen as less useful.

The survey showed that the least appreciated aspect of shopping online is the site-generated product recommendations. There’s “ample room for improvement,” the report said.

Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter or visit The ConsumerMan website.

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Hong Kong pro-democracy paper Apple Daily announces closure after police freeze assets | World News



Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Apple Daily has announced its closure after police froze £1.65m in assets linked to the newspaper.

Police cited more than 30 articles published by the paper as evidence of an alleged conspiracy to impose foreign sanctions on Hong Kong and China and arrested five editors and executives.

In a statement, the paper’s publisher, Next Digital, said its print and online editions will cease no later than Saturday due to “the current circumstances prevailing in Hong Kong”.

But it was the freezing of assets that prompted the 26-year-old tabloid’s abrupt closure, which has escalated alarm over media freedom and other rights in the Chinese-ruled city.

The paper, which employs around 600 people, could publish its last edition as soon as Thursday, Cable TV and Now TV are reporting.

It comes as more than 100 people have been arrested under Hong Kong’s new national security law, including prominent pro-democracy activists and Apple Daily’s publisher Jimmy Lai.

The police operation against Apple Daily has been criticised by the UK, US and EU, which argue that Hong Kong and Chinese authorities are targeting the city’s promised freedoms since the former British colony was returned to the control of Beijing in 1997.

Chinese and Hong Kong officials say that press freedom cannot be used as a “shield” for illegal activities and that the media must abide by the law.

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US seizes 36 websites with links to Iran, accusing them of spreading disinformation | World News



Dozens of Iranian-linked websites have been seized by the US Justice Department.

Many of the 36 websites are violent organisations or associated with spreading disinformation, the department said.

They were all taken offline for violating US sanctions, although several were back online within hours with new domain addresses.

The DOJ said 33 of the websites were used by the Iranian Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU) and the other three websites were operated by Kata’ib Hizballah (KH).

The IRTVU was named by US authorities in October as a source of disinformation ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

Among those affected were Press TV, the Iranian government’s main English-language satellite television channel, and Al Alam, its Arabic-language equivalent.

Press TV news presenter Marzieh Hashemi told The Associated Press that the channel was struggling to “figure out the reasons” for the seizure.

The channel looks mainly at international affairs, but criticism of US and UK foreign policy is common and the Anti-Defamation League has called the channel “one of the world’s leading dispensers of conspiratorial antisemitism in English”.

Kata’ib Hizballah, also written as Kataib Hezbollah, is an Iraqi militia group with links to Iran.

The US designated it as a foreign terrorist organisation more than a decade ago.

Despite sanctions, IRTVU and KH failed to get the required licences from the US government before using the domain names, the Justice Department said.

Relations between the US and Iran have been tense for years and worsened after Donald Trump pulled the US out of the Tehran 2015 nuclear deal while he was president.

In response, Iran gradually abandoned every previous limit on uranium enrichment, and is currently enriching uranium to 60% – its highest level ever, although it is still short of weapons-grade.

Just days ago Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s former judiciary chief, was elected president.

Known for being anti-West, he has ruled out meeting US President Joe Biden for talks on Iran’s ballistic missile programme and support for regional militias, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

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Catalan separatists pardoned over independence bid as Spanish PM seeks ‘reconciliation’ | World News



Nine Catalonian separatists have been pardoned by Spain’s prime minister.

The group had been jailed for their role in the failed Catalonian independence bid of 2017 but what was left of their prison sentences has now been wiped.

They are expected to be released on Wednesday but will continue to be barred from holding public office.

A yellow ribbon hangs from a balcony next to a Catalan separatist flag in Barcelona on Tuesday
A yellow ribbon was hanging next to a Catalan separatist flag in Barcelona on Tuesday

Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, said he hoped their imminent freedom would “open a new phase of dialogue” and lead to “reconciliation”.

The intention is to “stop, once and for all, all the divisions and confrontation”, he added.

“These pardons do not depend on their recipients renouncing their ideas, and nor do we expect them to do so,” Mr Sanchez continued.

“These people were never put in prison for the ideas they hold, but rather for having violated the laws of our democracy.”

The group of politicians and activists were jailed in 2019 for between nine and 13 years for sedition and misuse of public funds.

People demonstrating earlier this month against pardoning the Catalonian leaders
People demonstrated against pardoning the Catalonian leaders in Madrid earlier this month

Former Catalonia president Carles Puigdemont and other well-known separatists who fled Spain following the attempt at a breakaway are not included in the pardons.

One of the nine, Raul Romeva, tweeted that the struggle for independence would continue.

“We won’t give up the fight: amnesty and self-determination!” he wrote.

The current head of Catalonia, Pere Aragonès, said the pardons showed that prosecuting the separatists had been unjust.

“It’s the time for us to agree on a referendum on independence,” he said in a televised address.

Portraits of the jailed secessionist leaders close to Lledoners prison near Barcelona
Portraits of the jailed secessionist leaders were displayed near Lledoners prison

A majority of Spaniards oppose the pardons, surveys have suggested, and people protested against the plan in Madrid earlier this month.

Conservative parties in the capital have said they will challenge the pardons in court.

They fear the activists’ release will fuel the separatist movement.

But the government is said to be convinced there will be no new unilateral bid for independence.

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