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. Relatively new policies at Target and Best Buy even include online-only merchants such as Amazon.
The New York Times' Bits blog identifies the recent policy changes at Target and Best Buy as reactions 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 has expanded its low-price guarantee to include more than a dozen major e-commerce sites, including Amazon. Target's online price matching extends to Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy, Toys R Us, and Babies R Us. Best Buy and Target 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.
Other retailers, such as Home Depot and 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. If you order an item online from Lowes.com for in-store pickup or local delivery, you'll 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 you check competitors' prices as you 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.