This season, the best prices on holiday gifts aren't necessarily a mouse click away.
Target and other big box retailers are going on the offensive with new price-match guarantees that apply to stores as well as websites.
For the first time, Target will honor the online prices of Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy and Toys "R" Us. It starts Thursday and runs through Dec. 16, ending before the final sprint to Christmas. (Price matching on store ads extends through Dec. 24.)
The policy takes direct aim at "showrooming," the popular practice of looking at an item in a store, then going online to buy it for a cheaper price. The move might reduce profits on certain items, but it also encourages people to do more one-stop shopping.
Best Buy has a similar price-matching deal in place, excluding Thanksgiving weekend and Cyber Monday. Walmart, Toys "R" Us and Babies "R" Us have price matching but only on printed store ads.
While these policies seem like a good deal for the consumer, it will be interesting to see how they play out. Every store has different rules about what it matches, and researching deals takes time and effort.
Toys "R" Us and Babies "R" Us, for example, say they'll match online prices for some baby gear but only after they factor in shipping costs, which would seem hard to calculate if you order several items. I can just imagine arguing with a sales clerk over the price of a bouncy seat with 10 people tapping their feet behind me.
I also wonder how you redeem the prices, which isn't always clear on the websites. The sites for Target and Best Buy, in fact, still say price matching doesn't apply to online retailers, even though it does.
Generally, to match a store price you need to bring in the printed ad but, again, several restrictions apply. To match an online retailer, you need to print out the Web page with the price or show your smartphone to a clerk, who you hope is well-versed in the policy.
I can see this getting complicated quickly and backfiring on stores if shoppers find out at the register they can't get the best price because of some detail in the fine print. I think I might try it on my big-ticket purchases with the most potential for savings. Then, I'll contact my store ahead of time to make sure I don't leave annoyed and empty-handed.
In other big box news: The iPad mini comes out in stores Friday. If you're headed to a Best Buy, check the store hours because many are opening early to accommodate the rush.
The Toys "R" Us Big Book came out Sunday. My condolences to parents whose children saw it and circled items on every page. There's only 56 days left until Christmas to hear about it. Prices are valid through Nov. 21.
Will consumers begin buying? Economists at Wells Fargo Securities say retail sales will be "modest at best" this holiday season.
According to the report released Monday, retail sales in November and December are expected to inch up 3.8 percent over last year. That's less than last year's increase of 5.7 percent but slightly more than the past decade's average of 3.5 percent.
Analysts attribute the modest rise to sluggish job growth and so-so disposable income, even as consumer confidence grows. Many people are still worried about the economy and impending fiscal cliff of budget cuts and tax increases set to go into effect in January.
That outlook could improve, however, depending on the results of the presidential election and how consumers and Congress react.
At least retailers have the calendar on their side this year. There are three more days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and because Christmas falls on a Tuesday, shoppers have an extra weekend to hit the stores.