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Price matching invites criticism

– This Easter, Wal-Mart 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. “Wal-Mart will match it right at the register. Yeah, and you don’t even need your ad!”

Price matching has become a key tactic for retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and Toys R Us as they try to attract shoppers amid an uneven U.S. recovery.

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-based brand consulting firm.

But 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 Wal-Mart, according to interviews with workers and shoppers, the Ad Match Guarantee is inconsistently applied from store to store.

Robin Sherk, an analyst at research firm Kantar Retail, said Wal-Mart 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.”

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Deisha Barnett said it’s “unfortunate” that some stores aren’t following the rules.

“Based on data that is representative of stores across the country, it’s not a national problem,” she said.