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This holiday season, the hottest trend among retailers isn't found on a store shelf. It's taking place at the cash register.
Major retailers, from Best Buy to Toys R Us, are promising to match their competitors' prices. Generally customers just need to bring in an advertisement or printout to prove that the same item is available elsewhere at a lower price. In some cases, shoppers can come back with a receipt and get a refund for the difference if the price of an item they bought fell.
Best Buy, Target, Walmart and Sears offer price matching to customers all year round. But what's different now is that Best Buy and Target are matching online retailers such as Amazon.com for the first time. That's a big deal, since online prices tend to be lower than those at stores.
Shoppers will be able to save some extra money, but they're going to have to read a lot of fine print to do so.
"Price matching sounds good, but there are so many exclusions, it sometimes isn't as good as it sounds," says Edgar Dworsky, the founder of ConsumerWorld.org, which tracks deals for shoppers.
For instance, Target limits the number of online retailers that it will price match against to just five. Best Buy has selected 20, but only matched online prices from Nov. 1 to Nov. 17 and will start again from Nov. 27 to Dec. 24.
Toys R Us is offering price matching for the first time and will only match prices that customers find in other brick-and-mortar stores. Walmart also matches against in-store prices. However, both retailers will match prices found on their own websites if the prices are lower than what you find in their stores. It's not uncommon for retailers to offer steeper discounts online than in their actual stores. (But Toys R Us says it won't match prices on its own website if the item is marked as an "online-only price.")
Even the most experienced bargain hunters can get tripped up by all the rules. But shoppers can save some money if they're diligent.
"It really is a way to save money and shop at the store you want instead of one that's inconvenient," says Dworsky.
Here are four ways to get the most out of price matching offers:
1. Know the policy
If you want to take advantage of a price match offer, read the store's policy closely. You can find the guidelines on the store's website.
Print out the policy and bring it with you.
2. Bring proof
Always bring the advertisement or the printed web page for the item you want to price match.
3. Save receipts
Some retailers will give you money back if you see a lower price after you buy an item. Keep your receipts and, particularly for big-ticket items, continue to look for lower prices.
Best Buy will issue refunds until the end of January. Toys R Us lets you seek a refund up to seven days after buying an item. Sears customers can get a refund after 14 days. Target is letting customer's price match against brick-and-mortar retailers until Dec. 24 for any item bought after Nov. 1. You can only ask Target to match the price of an online retailer until Dec. 16.
4. Go straight to the customer service desk
Many retailers have hired cashiers specifically for the holiday rush, so the new employees may not be up-to-speed on the store's price matching policy.