The service has been launched by ERC UK, part of the international Efficient Consumer Response network which brings together retailers, suppliers, wholesalers and packaging companies who work together to develop and establish best practice for the supermarket industry.
The survey will be managed by IGD, the UK grocery trade think tank, and will assess consumer perceptions of the availability of 200 products across 12 categories (beers, wines & spirits, cigarettes, dairy, grocery, frozen, health & beauty, homeware, household, meat & fish, bakery, processed meat and produce).
The survey is being conducted in 350 stores (including Asda, The Co-operative Group, Safeway, Sainsbury's, Somerfield and Tesco) across England, Scotland and Wales.
The IGD will question consumers about their weekly shopping trips, and the survey data will be representative of the market as a whole by focusing on a percentage of each retailer's portfolio.
The results, which will be published quarterly as of next month, should provide what the IGD called "the most comprehensive study of availability published in the UK". In particular, they should show which products have a 100 per cent availability rating, as well as the average performance for both retailers and manufacturers and the average performance across each of the 12 product categories.
They should also provide a benchmark for retailers and suppliers, allowing them to pinpoint which areas are in need of further development. Working together with other ECR working groups, such as those working on supply chain and logistical issues, the findings should help improve the levels of on-shelf availability and thus meet one of ECR UK's core targets - to deliver what the customer wants.
The cost to industry of products not being on the shelf when the consumer wants to buy them is clear. TheIGD's Shopper Insight research in 2003 showed that as a result of poor availability, retailers could directly lose 43 per cent of intended purchases when a product is out of stock, whilst manufacturers could directly lose 25 per cent.
Mark Aylwin, supply director at Safeway and co-chair of ECR UK, pinpointed on-shelf availability as a major challenge for both retailers and manufacturers - and a great source of frustration for the consumer. "Through ECR UK we have a great opportunity to use the findings of this survey to work together to improve availability for our customers."
While it will obviously focus on the retail sector, the initiative also has the full support of grocery suppliers, who see it as a further means of strengthening their relations with their key retail customers.
"At the moment retailers and suppliers conduct their own availability surveys to check how well they are serving their customers. This new service adds real value. For the first time companies will be able to compare themselves to an industry benchmark for availability," said Joanne Denney-Finch, the IGD's chief executive.