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Best Buy’s Self-Destructive Online Price-Match Program

Written by Evan Schuman
October 18th, 2012

Target and Best Buy this week made some major—and long overdue—price-match changes and finally agreed to match some online prices. But Best Buy seems to have forgotten why price matches can attract shoppers. One element of its plan, for example, says that store associates will have discretion to match or to not match online prices.

Yeah, that’s the type of motivational shopper message Best Buy wants to send out: “Come on over to Best Buy for the holidays. And if our sales reps feel like matching your Amazon.com price, they will. Trust us.”

The motivational value of price matching is rooted in its certainty. You can have as many published limits as you’d like (and, yes, both chains have certainly done their lawyers proud with impressive limits of every type). But the point is that a customer who brings in a rival’s price that meets those limits will absolutely get that price. To have a price-match program be based on the whims and discretion of the sales associate is hardly effective. Do it or don’t do it, but make it firm either way.

Best Buy spokesperson Amy von Walter said associates will match online prices, but not all the time. “All things being equal, if the price is the obstacle to the customer making the purchase,” von Walter said, it will likely be matched “when it makes sense,” adding that the decision will not be made by store management but by “discretion at the associate level.”

It seems highly unlikely that store managers would not have a huge say in these decisions, setting limits for how far associates can go. So although it might technically be true that associates might officially make the call (and that, in and of itself, may not pass the raised eyebrow test), it would certainly be because of guidelines set by the store. Would a store manager really want better deals offered to shoppers depending on which associate they worked with?

One interesting possibility is that Best Buy is being clever with its “associate discretion” effort. If the chain publicizes the program saying that price match is at the associate’s discretion and then confidentially tells all the associates to OK every online price match, the price-match customers feel like they got something other people maybe didn’t. (OK, not bloody likely. We shouldn’t ever let optimism replace our instinct for cynicism.)

Another shopper perception is the exclusion of Amazon third-party sellers. As a practical matter, those third-party sellers do offer much lower prices (sometimes), and they do not offer all of the services and protections of buying directly from Amazon. Hence, excluding them from a price-match program is reasonable.

But the way Amazon handles those third-parties makes them often look extremely similar to direct Amazon offers. If a shopper goes to amazon.com and searches for a microwave oven, finds one she likes and orders it, that shopper may not even realize it’s from a third-party. That means the customer may walk into Best Buy thinking it will be price matched and will then be disappointed. There’s no easy fix for this, other than customer education, which makes no sense here. (You really want Best Buy to teach its customers about how to shop at Amazon? That’s taking good retail corporate citizenship a bit far.)


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2 Comments | Read Best Buy’s Self-Destructive Online Price-Match Program

  1. Jim Bahler Says:

    I’m one of the 1800 “Asset Protection” people that were axed by Best Buy on August 1. There are storewide bonuses available, called “Blue Crew Bucks.” Paid quarterly, they are based purely on overall sales to every employee of that store, not profit margin. I understand that, in a couple of departments, there is a method of getting more pay, but I believe it’s based on selling such things as Broadband cards and extended warranties, neither of which would be affected by price matching.

  2. Fabien Tiburce Says:

    Not sure I share the article’s pessimism. Any kind of price-match is better than nothing at all. Most consumers don’t actually look too hard for competitive pricing once they’ve bought a product so I think this is more about brand and pricing perception than anything else. As a retailer, you also need to protect yourself against unfair pricing practices by etailers. Jjust because you see a price online doesn’t mean you can actually get the good delivered to you at that price. The product could be out of stock, priced with strings attached or simply listed to generate “buzz”.

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