A Wary Buyer's Guide to Holiday Shopping

By: Richard Mullins
November 20, 2009 

Expect some up-close and personal attention from sales employees at hhgregg when you walk in the door of the electronics retailer.

Employees at hhgregg may be friendly. They're also paid 100 percent on commission. If you don't buy something, they aren't earning money.

"Hey, one of people's biggest complaints is that it's impossible to get any service on the floor in stores," said Ben Popken, managing editor of the consumer advocacy Web site Consumerist.com. "Maybe this will make the employees actually pay attention to the customers for once."

Costco, by contrast, has salaried employees. They're paid the same whether they help you buy that $1,000 high-definition TV or tell you to come back tomorrow when the price will be $200 lower.

Big electronics stores may look similar, with rows of gadgets and walls full of gleaming HDTVs, but below the surface lurk vast differences in how stores treat customers. Terms such as "low-price guarantee" or "price matching" mean different things from one retailer to the next.

Also, customers should know that some stores take back products with no questions asked and others charge a minimum of 20 percent of the sticker price.

As consumers enter the season when they make some of their largest purchases and expect deep discounts, the landscape is full of shopping hazards.

The new guy

If these policies seem suddenly more draconian, you're not hallucinating. They're new.

"Over time, retailers are getting more restrictive in price matching, restocking fees, all those kinds of things," said Jim Stock, a marketing professor at the University of South Florida. "That's because their margins are shrinking and they're threatened by online stores. So they're more careful with what they're offering."

The newest big electronics store in the area, hhgregg, has some of the most distinctive policies.

The store pledges to beat a rival's prices by 10 percent, but there are a string of caveats to that policy. The store only matches "brick-and-mortar" rivals, spokesman Jeff Pearson said.

Hhgregg won't match prices at online stores such as Amazon.com, or for sites such as Walmart.com and BestBuy.com. And they won't match stores outside this "trade area," so if you find a great price in Lakeland, better take it.

Another distinction: Customers must return products within 14 days of purchase, so don't buy something on Black Friday and expect to return it after Christmas. Then, a "minimum restocking charge of 20 percent of the purchase price can apply," according to company policy.

Big box

Which brings us to those established brick-and-mortar stores.

BestBuy will match rivals' prices, but not for seven days starting on Thanksgiving — meaning no match on a rival's door-buster Black Friday deal. BestBuy does not match pricing for a rival's Web site, bundled deals, "pricing errors," limited-quantity, out-of-stock, open-box, clearance, outlet center or refurbished products.

Store staff members are paid a salary rather than sales commission, though they receive bonuses based on how the store performs. There's also a restocking fee of 15 percent on some big-ticket items, like notebook computers and camcorders.

CompUSA has re-opened a few locations under new ownership, and will match some prices. But the product must be in stock at the rival, available for immediate shipment and in the same condition. Deals are limited to one per household, and there are no matches that are below CompUSA.com "actual cost," company officials said.

Join the club

Warehouse clubs have their own universe of store policies.

Costco has no official price-matching policy, in part because "we are typically the lowest price," said Chief Financial Officer Richard Galanti. Store staff members aren't paid on commission, rather the average wage is about $19 an hour, plus medical benefits, he said. There's no formal restocking fee, he said.

Sam's Club has emerged as a major electronics retailer, for instance selling a 55-inch Vizio LED HDTV for $1,876, about $400 less than through Amazon.com and Vizio's own Web site (but similar to the price at Dell.com).

There's no restocking fee at Sam's Club, but the store only matches prices at other club stores, such as BJ's or Costco, not online outlets.

Department stores

Established department stores have their own perks and pitfalls.

Walmart, for instance, has a reputation for low prices. But the world's largest retailer can make price-matching a fruitless game for shoppers.

Walmart will work with manufacturers to develop a slightly different product just for them. That means Walmart may have almost the identical Samsung 42-inch HDTV as BestBuy, but with different model numbers, so customers have no chance to play one retailer off another.

"Walmart is known for this in particular," Popken said. One perk though: Walmart's official policy is to forgo a restocking fee.

Rival store Target will reimburse customers who buy one of their products and then find a lower price elsewhere, but only within seven days, and not counting "early bird, door busters or limited quantity items," according to the company. There's also a potential 15 percent restocking fee on camcorders, digital cameras, portable DVD players and portable electronics.

Just what "restocking" means can vary among stores. Some charge a fee for any returned product, open or not, for any reason, though it's more likely applied to gadgets that customers opened, tried, and brought back to the store. Generally, the fee helps stores recoup some costs, as they will need to put that product on the clearance rack or have it refurbished before resale.

Almost no stores take back digital media such as DVDs or video games.

Retail legend Sears will beat rival prices by 10 percent, according to company policy, but with a long list of exclusions: Nothing during Black Friday, and no "bonus" offers, "special" offers, "bundles," coupons, clearance or closeout items. Photocopied ads don't count, only original fliers. Typos don't count either.

And for customers looking to bring back electronics, there's a potential 15 percent restocking fee.

If all of these in-store policies seem too much to handle, especially around Black Friday, USF's Stock has some advice.

"You can often get the same or better price on a given store's Internet site," Stock said. "And that's all day, so you don't have to stand in line at 4 a.m."