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Online-Price-Matching Policies

As consumers have become more comfortable shopping online and more conscious of the lower prices often found at low-overhead online shops, some brick-and-mortar stores have tried to stay competitive by venturing into online price matching. The policies at Target, Walmart, and Best Buy even include online-only merchants such as Amazon.

This is a win-win for consumers, who can pay the same low price they would online without having to wait or pay for shipping. We used Amazon's iPhone app to scan a Sonicare toothbrush and got Target to lower the price by $30. (The only thing this doesn't account for is sales tax, which Amazon and other Internet retailers aren't required to collect in most states, although that may change soon and consumers are supposed to pay when they file their state tax returns.)

Experts see these policy changes as a reaction to the trend of "showrooming." Consumers who take advantage of lower prices online still want to be able to check things out in person before they buy, so they watch HDTVs and try digital cameras in stores but make their final purchases online, where the products are cheaper. Online price matching is a bid to transform showrooming browsers into paying customers by providing some assurance they're getting a good deal.

Best Buy has had a particular problem with showrooming. As reported in The New York Times, the retailer went as far as replacing standard barcodes with Best Buy-exclusive barcodes in stores to prevent shoppers from scanning products with an app to look up competitors' prices. The retailer's low-price guarantee extends to online prices at Amazon, B&H Photo Video, Crutchfield, Dell.com, HP.com, Newegg, and TigerDirect. The online price matching policies at Walmart and Target include about 30 major e-commerce sites. Best Buy, Target, and Walmart also promise to match prices displayed on their own websites. That's right -- the same item might cost less on Target.com than at your local Target store. Prices at retail stores are generally a little higher because expenses such as staffing, utilities, and insurance, not to mention rent, all drive up the cost of offline transactions.

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Other retailers, such as Lowe's, also offer online price matching, but it's limited to local competitors' websites and the companies' own online storefronts; the guarantees do not apply to online-only merchants. Shoppers who order an item online from Lowes.com for in-store pickup or local delivery are automatically be charged the lower of the online and in-store prices, without having to request a price match. Sears will match prices on competitors' websites, but only for retailers that honor their own online prices in-store (a manager may call the competitor to verify its policy).

There are a number of smartphone apps, including RedLaser, ShopSavvy, and the Amazon app, that can help consumers check competitors' prices as they shop. Online price matching may be worth a try even if you're shopping someplace where the guarantee doesn't explicitly cover it. When we went into a JC Penney, where the policy states that all online and mobile pricing is excluded, the manager said he'd accept a price we showed him on our phone from another department store, although he'd consider calling the local store to verify it. The companies' own websites are almost always worth a look, as well. Although many retailers won't match their own online prices, all the stores we researched except Kohl's provide free pickup at the nearest retail location, so you can order online if you find a lower price.

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