Nordstrom Inc. maintained its status as the nation’s favorite fashion retailer — with Kohl’s Corp. and Macy’s Inc. remaining a distant second and third — as value retailers made progress in Market Force Information Inc.’s year-end retail preference study.

This story first appeared in the December 27, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

In the survey of 6,821 U.S. and Canadian consumers, Nordstrom got top grades not only overall, but also in five of the eight specific categories probed by Market Force — atmosphere, return policy and associates who were helpful, friendly and knowledgeable. It also ranked fourth for its loyalty program — behind Kohl’s, Ascena Retail Group Inc.’s Dress Barn unit and Gap Inc.’s Banana Republic division — and fifth for its merchandise selection — behind Dress Barn, Ann Inc.’s Ann Taylor unit, Banana Republic and Dillard’s Inc.

J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and The TJX Cos. Inc.’s TJ Maxx brand moved up one slot each to fourth and fifth on the rankings from the last study, released in March.

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Gap Inc.’s Old Navy brand moved up two notches to sixth, TJX’s Marshalls brand five places to seventh and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. three spots to eighth. Ross Stores Inc. and Target Corp. continued to occupy the ninth and 10th slots, respectively, as they did in March.

The responses are strictly a measure of consumer preferences and not related to the financial performance of the ranked — or unranked — companies. Nordstrom, for instance, saw its earnings and sales pull back in the third quarter, while Macy’s registered increases on the top and bottom lines. Kohl’s saw sales and profits move lower during the period, and both Sears Holdings Corp. and Penney’s weathered deeper losses on lower sales.

Janet Eden-Harris, chief marketing officer at Market Force, observed greater caution among consumers in the most recent survey than in its predecessor.

“We detected a bit of a reluctance to spend compared to the previous study,” she told WWD. “Do I think the sky is falling? No. But people were just less optimistic than at the start of the year.”

This came through clearly when respondents were asked to classify themselves as fashion customers. Nineteen percent said they were “fashionistas” versus 48 percent who placed themselves in the “pragmatist” camp and 33 percent who called themselves “minimalists” who essentially bought based on need.

In the March study, 21 percent said they were “fashionistas,” 51 percent called themselves “pragmatists” and 29 percent selected “minimalists.”

The responses might help explain the advances in ranking achieved by TJ Maxx and the five-place bound by its sister division at TJX, Marshalls, and perhaps Wal-Mart’s three-place pickup as even fashion customers appeared inclined to want to “dress for success for less.”

Among the “fashionista” segment, 15 percent said they spend more than $250 a month on clothing and accessories.

“This time it dropped down to 15 percent,” Eden-Harris noted. “Fewer people are making that statement today.”

Consumers are being bombarded with low-price offers in the competitive late-year environment, she acknowledged, but “as we see with strong performers like Nordstrom and Kohl’s, it’s service-oriented factors like generous return policies and friendly associates that breed customer satisfaction and loyalty.”

Dillard’s, number four earlier in the year, fell off the top 10, as did Banana Republic, seventh earlier in the year. That’s not necessarily indicative of declining consumer report but can be due to the failure of a retailer to meet the minimum criteria by receiving 200 votes from the respondents.

The votes were weighted to adjust for store count. Nordstrom’s received about 200 votes per 100 doors and Kohl’s about 90. Kohl’s operates about 1,160 units while Nordstrom has 257 and more than half of them — 140 — are Nordstrom Rack stores.

In addition to its top performance in the loyalty program category, Kohl’s ranked second in return policy and fifth for “great value.” Macy’s was fourth for atmosphere and fifth for both return policy and friendly associates.

Although denied access to the top 10, Dillard’s scored well in several retail attributes categories. It was second in atmosphere, behind Nordstrom, second for helpful associates and third for both its associates’ friendliness and knowledge as well as finishing fourth for merchandise selection. Similarly, Banana Republic had third-place finishes for its loyalty program and merchandise selection.

Off-pricers dominated the rankings for value, with Burlington Stores Inc. leading the way, followed by TJ Maxx, Marshalls, Ross and then Kohl’s. Ross scored best for low prices, followed by Wal-Mart, Burlington, Marshalls and TJ Maxx. Sears Holdings Corp.’s Sears nameplate nailed down third place for return policy and fifth for its loyalty program, while Wal-Mart was fourth for return policy in addition to its recognition for low prices.

Several specialty stores made multiple appearances on the ratings of stores by attributes. In addition to its top grade for merchandise selection and second-place finish in the loyalty program category, Dress Barn was third for helpful associates and atmosphere and second for both friendly associates and knowledgeable associates. Ann Taylor scored fourth in knowledgeable associates and fifth for both atmosphere and helpful associates.

Lane Bryant, now, like Dress Barn, part of the Ascena family, also got some good news about its staff in the study — they were ranked fourth for both helpfulness and friendliness and fifth for their knowledge.