RETAILING After-sale adjusting worth it for some
One shopper already has collected $75 by demanding post-Christmas sale prices.
WASHINGTON -- For most shoppers, this teeth-gnashing scenario should sound familiar: You buy a sweater, stereo or widget at one price, only to find it drastically marked down weeks, days -- or, in the case of Christmas, even hours -- later.
The difference from one shopper to the next is what, if anything, they choose to do about it. It's the difference between Nicole Cornthwaite of suburban Alexandria, Va., and Martha Schulman of New York.
Just after Christmas, Cornthwaite hit the stores carrying receipts for most of the holiday gifts she had purchased. Her mission: to check out after-Christmas prices on the gifts. If a price had dropped below what she paid, she asked retailers to refund her the difference.
Last year, she reclaimed nearly $100 this way; this year, she has already collected $75.
Most do it
Retailers call this price adjustment, and most do adjust prices for shoppers, usually within two weeks of the purchase date.
For the most part, they don't like to do it, retail analysts say. It reduces their sales numbers, and it's messy to regularly add, then subtract, revenue from their books.
But retailers can afford to swallow the difference because only 5 percent to 10 percent of shoppers make a habit of returning to the store to demand reduced prices, said Russell Jones, vice president of retail consulting at Cap Gemini Ernst & amp; Young.
Even when retailers pledge to match a competitor's lower price, few consumers can be bothered to drag themselves to the store and prove to Retailer X that Retailer Y had a better deal, Jones said.
Several retailers declined to discuss how often their customers ask for price adjustments. Some said they did not have the information, and others said they would not reveal it for competitive reasons.
None would comment on whether their typical customer is a Cornthwaite or a Schulman.
Schulman describes herself as a "sloppy, sloppy consumer" who is in no way a "retail loop person." That means she doesn't save receipts nor returns to stores often enough to keep tabs on fluctuating prices.
"I just don't have that shoppers routine down," said Schulman, a writer and graduate student. "In my mind, my time is more valuable than that."
Why retailers even bother adjusting prices is a mystery to her. Schulman, 38, knows chances are good that merchandise she bought before Christmas will go on sale.
"It's an implied contract," Schulman said. "I assumed the risk. Why do they have to eat the difference?"
Cornthwaite, 26, has a different take. "It's my money," she said. "Why not try to get it back?"
Kmart will refund Cornthwaite the difference between the price she paid and the sale price if she brings in a receipt within 90 days of the purchase date -- even if the merchandise is on layaway, a Kmart spokesman said.
Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic will give her a refund if she brings in the original receipt within 14 days -- but only once per item, no matter how many times it gets marked down further. So will Target, unless the merchandise originally came from the clearance racks, a spokeswoman said.
At Circuit City, any customer who asks for the sale price can get the difference plus an additional 10 percent off, said spokesman Bill Cimino. The electronics chain offers the same deal to customers who spot a lower price outside the Circuit City chain.
Industry watchers say these policies encourage shoppers to spend. If consumers believe they are not locked into a price that will be lowered later, they're more apt to buy.
The same thinking applies to returns, said Jones of Cap Gemini Ernst & amp; Young. "People make purchases knowing they can return," he said. When retailers toughen return policies, "they put doubt in the consumer's head about the ability to take merchandise back, and they increase the likelihood that the consumer will not buy."
Whether it's returns or price adjustments, retailers don't want to risk alienating the Cornthwaites of the world or losing them to the growing number of rivals who will give them their money back.
"If you're too stringent, you risk losing business," said George Whalin, president and chief executive of Retail Management Consultants. "If you're too liberal, it costs you money."