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Price-matching policies not all they're cracked up to be

Halloween is barely over and major retailers including Target and Best Buy already are trying to lure holiday shoppers to their brick-and-mortar stores with promises that they will match Internet prices, at least temporarily. But some of the offers may fall short of their claims.

just-released survey of nine major retail chains by the website ConsumerWorld.org shows there are a lot of exclusions and exceptions that could limit your savings. 

“They’ve put so many restrictions in place that you may not be able to get a price match at all,” warned Consumer World founder Edgar Dworsky. “For example, some stores that say they’ll match websites only have a specific list of websites that they will match. And they may limit the price matching to certain categories, such as just to appliances and electronics.” 

Best Buy’s online price match applies to 20 stores. For Target, it’s only five:  Amazon.com, BabiesRUs.com, BestBuy.com, ToysRUs.com and Walmart.com. And the offer expires Dec. 16. 

“Go onto Target’s website and you’ll see what amounts to about three pages worth of exclusions and fine print that you’re going to have to comply with,” Dworsky noted.  (You can click here to view the price-matching policies of Best Buy and Target.)

Store policies can be confusing 
The price match at Home Depot does not apply to Internet prices. And that policy is only good at the time of purchase, not afterward, as is common practice at most other big-name retailers. 

“If you buy the item and see it for less after you walk out of the store, you’re out of luck, unless you find a soft-hearted store manager,” Dworsky said. 

But how would a customer at Home Depot know that? On its website, the store’s explains its price match policy in just two sentences: 

If you find a current lower price on an identical, in-stock item from any local retailer, we will match the price and beat it by 10%.  Excludes special orders, bid pricing, volume discounts, open-box merchandise, labor and installation, sales tax, rebate and free offers, typographical errors and online purchases. 

Notice that it does not say anything about at time of sale. But that’s what Dworsky was told when he called the company’s public relations department to get specifics about their policy. 

“The nuances of Home Depot’s policy are not obvious, such as when the extra 10 percent does not apply,” said Dworsky.  “I went to one store and asked for a copy of their detailed policy, but there is apparently no such document.”  

Jennifer King, senior manager of external communications at The Home Depot, confirmed to NBCNews.com that the company’s price match only applies at the time of purchase. When asked why this wasn’t specifically disclosed to customers on the store’s website, King wrote: “We will consider updating, but that is what we mean by saying we will match a current price. This has been our policy for years.”

She went on to say that the store managers have “some discretion on a case by case basis.”

How do you deal with this?  

Before you go shopping, read and understand the store’s price-match policies. That’s not always easy to do. The information isn’t always clearly listed on the company website and store employees may not always know. 

Don’t expect a price match on the big sale dates including Black Friday, Cyber Monday or any time during Thanksgiving week at some stores. Special doorbuster prices for early bird and night owl sales are also excluded from most price-match gurantees. 

Don’t wait too long if you spot a better price. At some stores, the price-match guarantee is only good for seven days.

Before you go back to make a claim, get the required proof, and be ready to argue your case if you feel you’re being unfairly treated. 

“Stand your ground,” Dworsky advised. “Despite their stated policy, stores hate to match prices because they may wind up losing money.” 

ConsumerMan savvy shopper tips 
Some credit cards offer “price protection” as a cardholder benefit. If you make a purchase with the card and that exact item is advertised for less within a certain time period (usually 60 days), you get the difference back.  If you have one of these cards, you don’t have to worry about a restrictive store policy. These credit card programs generally do not apply to Internet ads or purchases. 

Late last week, PayPal rolled out a price-match offer. Use PayPal online or at a physical store (between now and December 31) and if the item is advertised at a lower price – even online –  PayPal will reimburse you for the difference up to $250 in the form or a credit to your account. They’ll even accept screen shots of non-auction online advertisement. 

The PayPal price match does have restrictions and limitations. It doesn’t cover jewelry. It doesn’t apply to any items purchased on Thanksgiving, Black Friday or Cyber Monday, or advertised for sale only on these dates. Door buster sales, cash-only sales and close-out sales are also ineligible. That still leaves a lot of stuff that is covered, including eBay Buy Now purchases of new items from top-rated sellers. 

My two cents 
If a store is going to use a price-match policy to get me to shop there, they darn well better make it easy for me understand that policy. It should be clearly posted – with all nuances and exclusions – on their website and available at the store. This is not always the case and that’s wrong. 

Home Depot really needs to get its act together. The price-match policy posted on their website is inaccurate and could be misleading. Customers should be told the price match is only valid at the time of purchase.

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

If you're ready to begin the holiday shopping blitz, TODAY contributor Elizabeth Mayhew has tips on what to buy this month, including the best deals on electronics you'll find on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, as well as low prices on cookware and kitchen appliances.

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