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THE GOODS : Promises, Promises : Retailers will keep their pledges to offer the best price in town--if you ask them to.

November 18, 1994|S. J. DIAMOND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Guaranteed Lowest Prices!"

It's a real trust-inspirer, that guarantee, and it's everywhere--on cameras, TVs, appliances, computers.

Stores are "really making two statements," says Herschel Elkins, watchdog of advertising claims as California's senior assistant attorney general. "The first is, 'We've checked and we have the lowest prices.' The second is: 'If we made a mistake, we'll give you the money back.' "

You couldn't ask for more. To get it, however, you do have to ask.

Such promises are thus half comfort, half hassle. "It means I can buy something and feel secure that if I find it for less, they'll refund me the difference," says Janet Morgan, a Los Angeles fashion wholesaler.

But when the Sony phone she bought at Circuit City was advertised at $10 less within the month, when she went back, the store questioned the ad and time elapsed before offering a partial refund.

"I did it on principle," she says.

Most people wouldn't bother. So a store that makes the second promise can skimp on the first.

Ironically, the guarantees could discourage low prices. Why offer every customer the lowest price in town when only some will demand it?

Low-price guarantees were probably a good idea originally, particularly in consumer electronics, where everyone sells the same brands of merchandise, competing mainly on price. Stores couldn't always keep up with competitors' rapid price changes. Consumers couldn't be sure that what they're buying wouldn't be priced lower next week in the same store or elsewhere.

The guarantee is supposed to relax shopping-weary consumers, "to make them happy and comfortable with what they're buying today," says Corey Polakov, advertising director for Adray's in Los Angeles. "We're telling them basically that you don't need to shop anyplace else; we guarantee we have the lowest price in town."

Store after store has jumped in, escalating their offers to compete.

Some extend the time, first promising to beat all other current prices, then to beat any price over the next 30 days. Adray's now promises to refund a price difference for one full year.

Some increase the refund--from the difference between the two prices to the difference plus 10%, 30%, 50% of the price difference. Last year, L.A. Tronics began advertising "Double (200%) the Difference." Says CEO Shawn Halimi: "We wanted to put the issue of price to bed."

Naturally, there are restrictions. The competitive dealer must be local, legitimate and established. The competitively priced merchandise must be the same model, brand-new, factory-sealed, and not a close-out. It must also be in stock at the store offering the lower price. "We couldn't compete with something that doesn't exist," Halimi says.

A customer claim must be verified--by a print ad, a phone call or, if there's much at stake, a visit to the competitor.

A competitive price is often accepted without question. Sometimes, one dealer says, "you'll see (salesmen) verify it on their computer."

It shouldn't be that hard to be the lowest. Around L.A., for example, there are only half a dozen big electronics and appliance vendors, all heavy advertisers. They all claim, moreover, to comparison-shop. "We're shopping the competition at all times," says Circuit City spokesman Paul Rakov at its Richmond, Va., headquarters, "and we'll adjust our prices accordingly."

But they can't know everything. We shouldn't be surprised, for example, that the Good Guys kept selling the Olympus Zoom camera for $199 when Target was heavily advertising it for $189. (Good Guys met the price when asked.) Or that Adray's had a Hotpoint refrigerator marked $485 when L.A. Tronics was advertising it at $399.

What about when Adray's itself was advertising that Hotpoint for $399? Yes indeed, the salesman said, it was $485, just as the sign said. But when a customer produced Adray's ad, he accepted $399.

He "may not have known it was on sale," the store manager says. Everybody knew now, but two days later, still advertised at $399, the floor model was still marked $485.

They "should have gone and put the sale price on the item," says Adray's advertising director Polakov.

It's not guaranteed that stores adjust a posted price when they learn it's lower elsewhere, although "they're supposed to," Polakov says.

"Generally, when someone comes in with an ad, they usually re-mark the price," says Keith Fox, spokesman for the Good Guys, "but it's not policy that they do."

"Often it's just a one-day sale, " says Circuit City's Rakov. "It's a lot of trouble to adjust it for one day and then adjust it back up. We would give it if someone asked."

The lowest price in town isn't guaranteed to everybody--just to those who know it.

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