Shopping at one store versus another can mean a difference of hundreds—sometimes thousands—of dollars.
Let’s say you’re in a Home Depot (HD) , which offers a 110% price-match guarantee, and you see a refrigerator priced at $1,000. If you show the customer service agent that the same refrigerator is priced at $900 at a competitor, Home Depot will charge you only $820 for it. (Just be aware: Price-match guarantees have a lot of exclusions and they tend not to be retroactive, so you can’t buy the refrigerator one day and then come back in and get a refund if you later see a lower price.)
Other policies can save consumers plenty of dough as well: A generous return policy like L.L. Bean’s—you can return any item at any time without a receipt—means that if you bought a sweater five years ago, you can get your money back now—no explanation needed. And shoppers at the Gap, which has a lucrative rewards program (roughly 5% cash back) for store credit-card holders, can save hundreds of dollars a year.
The fine differences between store policies are particularly important because the sticker prices at many big-box retailers are nearly identical. In a study published in August of last year by industry research provider Bloomberg Industries, Target had lower prices than Wal-Mart (WMT) , but only by a smidge—for every $100 a consumer spent at Target (TGT) , she would save only 46 cents (that is, 0.46%) over shopping at Wal-Mart, on average; in earlier months, Wal-Mart’s prices had been a bit lower than Targets. And, as retail consultant Vanessa Ting, a former buyer for Target, points out, “when one store drops the price, the others tend to do it soon after as well.”
Even though many prices in big-box stores are similar, consumers should still do price checks, as there are plenty of exceptions to the rule. Trae Bodge, senior editor of coupon site RetailMeNot.com, recommends consumers use an app like ShopSavvy, which scans the barcodes of items to compare prices. Online shoppers can also use a browser add-on like Priceblink, which automatically searches for lower prices and alerts you if an item can be bought for less elsewhere.
To be sure, store policies like price matching, returns and free shipping often have a lot of restrictions and exceptions, and consumers need to read the fine print on them. Still, these policies and practices can help consumers save money. With that in mind, MarketWatch sifted through the offerings of major retailers, to see which offer the best price-matching guarantees (some match up to 110%), return policies (some allow you to return any item at any time), coupons and deals (some release them weekly or even more frequently), loyalty programs (some give 5% cash back) and free shipping offers (some offer it every day without minimums).Price-matching guarantees
Roughly one in five large retailers offers a price-match guarantee, according to deal aggregator site DealScience.com. Among the best offers are those that offer a price match, plus an additional 10% off. These include Lowe’s (LOW) , Home Depot and Fry’s. Other retailers like Best Buy (BBY) , Sears, J.C. Penney (JCP) , Target and Wal-Mart offer a 100% price-match guarantee. What’s more, during the holidays this year, many retailers are ramping up their price-match guarantees: Best Buy and Wal-Mart will match competitors’ prices even after consumers have bought an item.
While these guarantees can save consumers money, they come with plenty of fine print. Often the policies require consumers to bring in a print ad showing the item at a lower price at another store, and stores will usually only match prices from a short list of online retailers. Guarantees also typically exclude limited-quantity sale offers, clearance items, refurbished items and more. And retail consultant Ting says that it can take a lot of time for consumers to get these savings, because they have to go to the trouble of finding the ad for the lower-priced item and then have to deal with customer service.
It’s also worth noting that many retailers—such as Anthropologie, Gap (GPS) , Abercrombie, J. Crew, Best Buy and Old Navy—offer price adjustments, which means that if you buy something in their store and it goes on sale within about seven to 14 days, they will refund you the difference between the price you paid and the sale price.
Free shipping every day with no minimum purchase
About one in three retailers offers free shipping year round, according to the National Retail Federation. But most of them have exceptions like a minimum purchase, says Ting, or they only offer it on certain days or via special promotions. Plus, some stores will give consumers who have their store’s credit card free shipping all the time, she adds.
However, some retailers stand out for having free shipping and free return shipping every day without minimums. These include Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Zappo’s, ShopBop and Piperlime. L.L. Bean also offers free shipping without minimums, but consumers will pay $6.50 for returns unless they have an L.L. Bean store credit card.
These free shipping deals typically apply only to items shipped within the U.S. And consumers should note that with a little homework (such as on FreeShipping.org, which aggregates free shipping deals) or a minimum purchase of about $50, they can get a free shipping coupon code or deal even from retailers that don’t offer free shipping all the time. Also keep in mind that Dec. 18 is free shipping day—a day when hundreds of retailers offer free shipping with guaranteed delivery by Christmas Eve.
Generous return policies
Partly because return fraud costs the industry about $8.8 billion per year, many stores have tightened their return policies. But there are still a few that make returns easy for gift givers and recipients alike.
The best policies are those that allow consumers to return any item at any time even without a receipt. L.L. Bean falls into this category. You could return a shirt you bought 10 years ago and get a refund for it today at the retailer. Though Nordstrom doesn’t have a formal return policy, it sometimes (this is done on a case-by-case basis) will follow those same guidelines—any item, any time, even without a receipt. Other stores with generous return policies include Anthropologie, Athleta, Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s (XNYS:M) —all of which allow you to return many items at any time after purchase.
Frequent coupons and deals
Some retailers post new deals, discounts and coupons more frequently than others. According to DealScience.com, which aggregates deals from roughly 6,500 retailers, stores like Kohl’s, Bed Bath & Beyond, Kmart, Sears, Jo-Ann Fabric, Gap and Old Navy have coupons available about 90% of the time. Deal site RetailMeNot.com says that Kohl’s, Macy’s and Bed, Bath & Beyond (BBBY) are the retailers that most frequently put up new deals or refresh old ones. Kohl’s often offers 15%-off deals; Bed Bath & Beyond, 20%-off deals; and Macy’s, 15%-off or more, a spokesperson for the site says. Data from Savings.com shows that big department stores like Macy’s and Kohl’s tend to offer frequent discounts year-round (typically of about 10% to 20%), as do big-box retailers like Sears and Kmart (10% to 15% off). During the holidays, technology retailers like Dell and HP tend to have good deals available, but the offers are typically not long-lasting, according to Saving.com data.
There’s no doubt that store credit cards, which have an average interest rate of 25%, can be expensive for consumers. But if you pay the bill in full and on time each month, they don’t have to be.
Retailers’ rewards programs differ greatly and some require you to sign up for the store credit or debit card to get the best rewards, while others don’t. Here are some notable rewards programs.
Both Target and Lowe’s offer cardholders 5% off at the register each time they swipe their card, which over time can add up to hundreds in savings. Gap cardholders can save 10% off every Tuesday at Gap, Old Navy and Piperlime and save 15% off their first purchase with the card; those with the J.C. Penney card can earn a $10 reward for every $100 spent each month at J.C. Penney and upon opening the card save 20% on their first purchase; and Macy’s cardholders regularly get coupons in the mail and can save 20%, up to a maximum of $100, the day they open their card and the day after that.