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Holiday shoppers to focus on price; Stores launch efforts to attract consumers

Forget style, quality and customer service. This holiday season, all that matters is price.

A week before Halloween and two full months before Christmas, stores are desperately trying to outdo each other in hopes of drawing in customers worn down by the economy.

Walmart, the biggest store in the nation, joined the price wars Monday by announcing that it would give gift cards to shoppers if they buy something there and find it somewhere else cheaper.

Staples and Bed Bath & Beyond have already said they will match the lowest prices of Amazon.com and other big Internet retailers. Sears is going a step further, offering to beat a competitor's best price by 10 percent.

"The days of marketing the stuff in your store because it was a hot brand are over," says Dave Ratner, owner of Dave's Soda & Pet City, a Massachusetts pet food and supplies chain.

For the holidays, Ratner plans to offer 20 percent off pet accessories if customers buy a bag of dog food. Customers, he says, just want a deal.

Almost four years after the onset of the Great Recession, they've learned to expect one, too. In better times, retailers could afford to keep prices higher and use promises of higher quality and better service to lure people into stores.

Those days are over. In a recent poll of 1,000 shoppers by America's Research Group, 78 percent said they were more driven by sales than they were a year ago. During the financial meltdown in 2008, that figure was only 68 percent.

Walmart last year went back to its "everyday low prices" roots, a bedrock philosophy of founder Sam Walton, rather than slashing prices only on certain items to draw in customers. Now everyday low prices might not be low enough.

So it's trying something it is calling the Christmas Price Guarantee. It works this way: If you buy something at Walmart from Nov. 1 to Dec. 25 and find the identical product elsewhere for less, you get a gift card in the amount of the difference.

Sears' offer of beating a competitor by 10 percent will not apply to retailers that only do business online, such as Amazon, but will apply to prices that its brick-and-mortar competitors offer on their websites.

The holiday price wars mark an acceleration of a trend that has already swept the retail industry. Lowe's, the nation's No. 2 home improvement store, said in August it was starting to focus on everyday low prices.

And J.C. Penney, the department store chain, said earlier this month that it plans to overhaul its pricing strategy starting in February. So far, it has kept the details a secret.

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