Wal-Mart compares prices, offers rebate

Online tool may change how people shop

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NEW YORK — The "Every Day Low Price" king is trying to shake up the world of pricing once again.

Wal-Mart said it has rolled out an online tool that allows shoppers to compare its prices on 80,000 food and household products to those of its competitors. The world's largest retailer began offering the Savings Catcher on its website this month in seven markets including Dallas, San Diego and Atlanta.

The move by Wal-Mart, which has a history of undercutting competitors, could change the way people shop and how other retailers price merchandise. After all, Americans are already increasingly searching for the lowest prices on their tablets and smartphones.

Shoppers do this so often that big retailers including behemoths such as Target and Best Buy have started offering to match the lower prices of rivals -- but only if shoppers do the research on their own. The idea behind Wal-Mart's online feature, on the other hand, is to do the legwork for customers.

The tool isn't revolutionary. Citibank launched a program two years ago that sends Citi credit card customers a check for the difference if it finds a lower price from an online retailer. But Wal-Mart is the first traditional retailer to offer such a program, and if it's successful, others might follow.

Duncan MacNaughton, chief merchandising and marketing officer for Wal-Mart Store Inc.'s U.S. discount division, said that shoppers are looking for "technological answers to save them money and time."

Wal-Mart, which declined to say when the program would be rolled out nationwide, said it is hoping the online tool will build more confidence among Wal-Mart shoppers that it has the best price in store.

The company built its business on offering the lowest prices on staples such as milk, bread and laundry detergent. But Wal-Mart's "every day low price" model is under attack from online king Amazon and other competitors that sometimes offer items for less.

Wal-Mart's U.S. discount division recorded its fourth consecutive quarter of declines in revenue at stores opened at least a year, a critical yardstick for measuring a retailer's health. The discounter also has seen a decline in the number of shoppers going to its stores.

Wal-Mart has had a price matching strategy for several years. In 2011, it simplified the policy by making sure workers have competitors' advertised prices at the register, eliminating the need for shoppers to bring in an ad from a rival store.

Wal-Mart said the idea for Savings Catcher was born in 2013 in a focus group. By last summer, Wal-Mart was testing it in four markets on an invitation-only basis. In late February, the company began rolling it out to the seven markets that also include Charlotte, N.C., Huntsville, Ala., Minneapolis and Lexington, Ky.

To use the tool, a customer sets up an account at Wal-Mart.com, then logs onto the Savings Catcher page at www.walmart.com and types in certain numbers on a receipt. Shoppers need to register the numbers within seven days of purchase. Savings Catcher compares prices of every item on the receipt to a database of competitors' advertised prices. The database is provided by an undisclosed third party.

The prices at Wal-Mart stores are analyzed based on those at brick-and-mortar stores based on geographic location, but not to those of online retailers. The tool doesn't include purchases on store brands or to general merchandise such as clothing or electronic gadgets, but does include groceries and things such as detergent.

The savings are issued on a Wal-Mart online gift card. Customers can accumulate savings or immediately use the credit. Shoppers can use the credit in stores or online by printing out the gift card receipt.

Wal-Mart's MacNaughton said data show that in Savings Catcher markets, shoppers are putting more items in their basket, and the checkout lines are faster because people don't feel need to pull out their smartphones or ads to check prices.

Anne Jurchak said she has been getting back $5 to $7 on her weekly Wal-Mart trips in which she spends $200 to $250. She said she has used the savings to buy stocking stuffers and a case for her e-reader.