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Retailers’ risky price match tactics drawing criticism

One consultant said price matching ‘‘is a necessary evil’’ because once one retailer offers it, others follow suit.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press/file 2012

One consultant said price matching ‘‘is a necessary evil’’ because once one retailer offers it, others follow suit.

NEW YORK — This Easter, Walmart Stores aired a television commercial promoting its Ad Match Guarantee. In it, an exuberant clerk touted the policy’s benefits to a shopper named ‘‘Janette’’ from Lithonia, Ga.

‘‘That price?’’ he said, pointing to an advertising circular the woman had brought in. ‘‘Walmart will match it right at the register. Yeah, and you don’t even need your ad!’’

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Price matching has become a key marketing tactic for retailers from Walmart to Target Corp. to Toys ‘‘R’’ Us Inc. as they try to attract shoppers amid an uneven US recovery.

It’s a risky strategy because the programs are difficult to manage — discretion to match or not is often left to store workers — and shoppers can complain if they don’t get the deal they’re expecting. In February, Toys ‘‘R’’ Us agreed to review its ad strategy after a consumer complained to an industry watchdog that workers didn’t understand how the price-matching policy worked. At Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart, according to interviews with workers and shoppers, the Ad Match Guarantee is inconsistently applied from store to store.

Robin Sherk, a New York analyst at consulting and research firm Kantar Retail, said Walmart is especially vulnerable because its lower-income customers are more likely to price match than Target shoppers.

‘‘Shoppers can get confused,’’ she said. ‘‘They go to different stores and there are different policies — even in the same store, if you go to different cashiers.’’

In a telephone interview, Deisha Galberth Barnett, a Walmart spokeswoman, said: ‘‘It’s unfortunate that there’s a couple stores that aren’t executing our match the right way. Based on data that is representative of stores across the country, it’s not a national problem.’’

Price matching ‘‘is a necessary evil today’’ because once one retailer offers it, others are almost inevitably forced to follow, said Allen Adamson, a managing director at Landor Associates, a San Francisco brand consulting firm.

‘‘They have to match because everyone sees everything, but how it’s done is important,’’ he said. ‘‘They have to do it quickly, and you have to give the consumer the benefit of the doubt because you want that consumer to be loyal to you.’’

Price-matching programs vary widely from retailer to retailer.

Best Buy lets customers match prices if the rival store is located within a 25-mile radius. Walmart allows managers to define the size of their trade area because they are more attuned to local conditions ‘‘than anyone’’ at headquarters, Barnett said.

Store workers sometimes don’t understand the rules. The Advertising Self-Regulatory Council’s National Advertising Division, which investigates claims made in national advertising, found Toys ‘‘R’’ Us workers didn’t know how to implement the retailer’s price-match guarantee.

The probe began in December after a shopper who wanted the store to match an online price for a dice game complained that several clerks gave him different interpretations of the policy, according to a copy of the case. A large sign in the store said: ‘‘Spot a lower advertised price? We’ll Match it.’’

The division recommended that Toys ‘‘R’’ Us either ‘‘discontinue its overly broad claim’’ or post the limitations. The chain said it would review the strategy.

Toys ‘‘R’’ Us, based in Wayne, N.J., declined to comment.

Whether or not price-matching issues are systemic, companies ‘‘should still be correcting them,’’ said C. Lee Peeler, the council’s president and chief executive.

Walmart has promoted its ‘‘simplified’’ Ad Match Guarantee in national ads since 2011, when chief merchandising officer Duncan Mac Naughton said the company was determined to provide low prices ‘‘backed by a clear, consistent ad match policy,’’ according to a press release. Since then, the company’s customers have continued to struggle amid a weak economy and rising taxes.

In February, Walmart forecast first-quarter profit that trailed analysts’ estimates. Comparable-store sales in the 13 weeks ended April 26 are projected to be little changed because of slower sales in the first few weeks of the quarter, the company has said. Still, Walmart shares rose to a record high of 79.09 on April 23.

While Walmart said store workers would receive ‘‘extensive’’ training ‘‘to ensure the price-match policy is executed consistently across all stores,’’ that hasn’t happened, said Richard Hampton, an overnight customer service manager at a Walmart Supercenter in Rowlett, Texas.

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