This holiday season, the hottest retail trend isn’t on store shelves. It’s at the cash register.
Major retailers are promising to match competitors’ prices. Generally, customers need only to bring in an ad or a printout to show 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 year round. What’s different now is that Best Buy and Target for the first time are matching online retailers such as Amazon.com. That’s a big deal; online prices tend to be lower.
Shoppers will be able to save money but will have to read a lot of fine print.
‘‘Price matching sounds good, but there are so many exclusions, it sometimes isn’t as good as it sounds,’’ says Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org.
For instance, Target limits the number of online retailers it will price match against to five. Best Buy has selected 20, but matched online prices only Nov. 1-Nov. 17 and will do it again Nov. 27-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.
Toys “R” Us, Best Buy, Sears, and Target say they will match prices on their own websites. (It’s not uncommon for retailers to offer steeper discounts online.) But Toys “R” Us won’t match prices on its own website if the item carries an ‘‘online-only price.”
Even experienced bargain hunters can be tripped up by all the rules. But shoppers can save some money if they’re diligent. Here are five ways to get the most out of price matching:
■ Know the policy. You can find the guidelines on the store’s website. Print out the policy and bring it with you. Hard copy helps if you need to argue your case.
■ Bring proof. Bring the ad or printed Web page for the item. Walmart, however, says cashiers have access to all local ads. But cashiers and customer representatives are always looking for a reason not to approve a transaction, Dworsky says.
■ Save receipts. Some retailers will give you money back if you see a lower price after you buy an item. 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 for up to seven days. Sears customers get 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 ask Target to match an online retailer’s price until Dec. 16.
■Go straight to customer service. Retailers hire holiday cashiers who may not be up to speed on policies. Heather Wheeler, of TheKrazyCouponLady.com, recommends handling a transaction at the customer service desk instead of at the register.
■ Look beyond retailers. EBay’s payment processor, PayPal, promises to match a lower price if you have already made a purchase using the service. That includes airline tickets. PayPal will match prices of retailers that don’t let customers use PayPal. Fill out a form and upload a receipt when you find a lower price. PayPal will give you back up to $1,000 for all purchases made until Dec. 31.
And ask your credit card company if it matches prices. It’s rare but a few do. Citi’s program, Citi Price Rewind, promises to do the work for you. Register purchases made on a Citi card online and you’ll get a check for the difference if it finds a lower price from an online retailer.
The program targets pricier purchases: The price difference must be $25 or more. Citi will give you up to $250 per item and up to $1,000 a year.
Of course, you’re going to need pay your credit card bill in full and not incur interest charges to make this a deal.