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Walmart takes first shot in retailer battlefield

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It's not surprising that Walmart fired the first salvo to begin this year's holiday shopping war. Right out of the shopping gate, the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer recently announced its "Walmart Christmas Price Guarantee," which has stirred up quite a few water cooler conversations.

Of the comments I've heard, a common one is that Walmart already has a price-matching policy. This is true - if you see items advertised elsewhere and take the ad to Walmart, the company will match the price. However, its Christmas program is a little different in that if you purchase an item there beginning Nov. 1 and see it advertised for less elsewhere until Dec. 25, they will give you the difference if you bring in the ad along with your receipt. But don't expect any cash from it - they'll only give the difference back in the form of a gift card.

Really, did you think a retailer would give you cash to spend at another store?Here are the full details: If a customer buys an eligible product at Walmart anytime between Nov. 1 and Dec. 25, and then finds that same product advertised for less at another store, Walmart will give the customer a gift card for the difference through Dec. 25, 2011. The price guarantee is valid on purchases made Nov. 1 through Dec. 25 on identical items (the same brand, size, color, quantity, grade and model number) that are currently available at competitor's stores located within the same local market as a particular Walmart store. To be eligible for the 'Christmas Price Guarantee,' customers need to bring in their original Walmart cash register receipt and the local competitor's current printed ad to Walmart's Customer Service desk through Dec. 25. Once validated, a gift card for the difference will be issued. Items placed on layaway will also be eligible for the price guarantee.

Of course there are exclusions, and Walmart lists too many of them to include here. Be assured though that expired ads or the famous 6-hour sale prices won't earn you any cash back, nor groceries, prescriptions, guns and gasoline. Walmart certainly understands the astuteness of its shoppers.

Perhaps the most important blackout to Walmart's Christmas Price Guarantee can be summed up in two words: Black Friday. It's the one time of the year where American retailers bring in almost 40 percent of their annual sales during the Christmas season. This is also the most important shopping day of the year for many consumers when retailers put forth their best prices through circulars in your Thanksgiving Day newspaper that outweigh the actual newspaper itself. However, Walmart has to apply a blackout of these ads because items sold are for a limited-time only. And a lot of the stores that offer Black Friday deals limit the quantities of goods offered at fire-sale prices.

Price matching is not new to retailers. However, Walmart is playing catch up to competing retailers with similar programs that are retroactive. Of some of the best price-match policies, Target lets customers bring in a competitor's ad up to a week after purchase and get a credit for the difference. Best Buy gives its customers a window of either 14, 30 or 45 days (depending on the class of product), while Staples gives buyers a 14-day window and Sears has a "price-match plus" policy that gives you 14 days to bring in a competing offer of which the store will beat the price by 10 percent.

Walmart's Christmas Price Guarantee is just one way the company hopes to attract shoppers. They are also offering: The holiday credit offerShoppers can save interest costs on every purchase made in November and December 2011, whether it's in store or on Walmart.com, with a Walmart Credit Card if balances are paid in full within six months. With no minimum dollar amount required, customers can buy the gifts they want from any department on any product in the store or at Walmart.com. Free shippingCustomers can now ship the way they want for free. Nearly 95 percent of Walmart.com products - including hundreds of thousands of electronics, home furnishings, apparel, beauty products, diapers, sporting goods and more - are now eligible for free shipping via Site to Store, Pick Up Today, FedEx Site to Store and Home Free shipping programs. With Home Free, customers can ship any apparel and consumables order over $45 for free direct to their home. Christmas layaway Layaway use to be a staple years ago, especially around the holidays. I remember my mom putting tons of stuff (toys, clothes, etc) on layaway; it was the only way she was able to afford Christmas for four kids without going into debt and be able to get the items she wanted at then-current prices. Kmart has always been the leader in the layaway market and Walmart has decided to re-enter that market with its Christmas Layaway Program for the first time since 2006.

However, Walmart's program has its limitations (surprise-surprise) - the only items you can put on layaway are toys and electronics; they must have a retail price of $15; and your total layaway order must be $50 or more to be eligible. There is a service charge of $5, and it does not apply to online purchases. Customers can make payments on purchases in varying amounts when they want through Dec. 16. If you cancel your order or don't pick it up, there's a $10 cancellation fee.

If you are interested in layaway for the holidays, Kmart and Sears offer a full range of merchandise including clothing, it's year-round, has no minimum item amount or transaction amount, it's nationwide (you can shop in one state and pick up in another), it offers an online layaway option and you can pay online and pick up in the store.

In my opinion, many will welcome the 'new' holiday offerings at Walmart, though you should still do your homework before shopping. Just because it's 'Walmart' doesn't mean it's the best program out there. The company likes to create a huge PR splash to gain attention in an otherwise competitive retail world during the holidays.

So, stay tuned for more holiday shopping war tactics - I'm sure we'll see many.

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