Thursday, February 22, 2018
Business

Changes could be in store for Walmart's BOGO matching policy

Something seems to be going on with Walmart's policy of matching BOGO deals at Publix.

In the past few weeks, I've received a bunch of calls and emails from shoppers who heard Walmart is either ditching the buy-one-get-one-free deal or tightening the rules.

One caller who shops in the Valrico area emailed me a copy of what looks like a store memo for employees about how to honor BOGO deals. It said BOGO deals now match the competitor's price — not Walmart's — meaning the second item isn't free but, instead, the difference between the competitor's price and Walmart's.

That's a big change and really takes out a lot of the incentive for choosing Walmart over Publix. Before, if a box of cereal cost $3.89 but only $3 at Walmart, you'd get two boxes for $3. Now, according to that memo, the first box costs $3 and the second costs 89 cents.

I have no idea how widespread this is, but imagine if cashiers have to calculate the price difference on every item? We'll never get out of line.

I did some shopping at Walmart last week and didn't have any problem getting its prices on BOGO deals. But the clerk did check my Publix ad more closely than previous visits to make sure all the items matched and were the same size as the ones advertised. Usually, employees just scan them through.

When asked if Walmart was changing its BOGO policy, she said it ends in October, which is exactly a year after it started. Too many shoppers had tried to match BOGO offers on the wrong items, she said. Not everyone brought in the competitor's ad, which isn't required but is helpful and speeds up the process.

Walmart officials say its BOGO matching policy hasn't changed and couldn't explain all the speculation that the company is doing away with it. Some of the confusion, a spokeswoman said, may be because Walmart just rolled out Savings Catcher, a nationwide program in which shoppers enter their receipt number online and Walmart will check if any local competitor has lower prices. Any savings are put into an account to spend online or at a store.

From the start, Walmart's BOGO match policy, while widely celebrated among penny pinchers, has been wrought with confusion. Getting deals often takes calling over a manager, which holds up the line and can be embarrassing. Many shoppers leave upset, something retailers never want to happen.

Particularly frustrating have been discrepancies among stores about how to handle manufacturer coupons on BOGO deals. Some stores allow two coupons — one on the item you pay for and one for the item you get for free, which is the same as at Publix and other stores. Other stores allow just one on the grounds that the second item is free and not eligible for a coupon.

Corporate folks at Walmart's headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., have said all along customers can use two coupons, but there's no written policy and even customer service reps, when asked, give varying answers. "That seems to be the million-dollar question,'' one reader wrote me.

In the end, how stores handle BOGOs often depends on whoever is on duty, which seems strange for a huge chain based on sameness.

Walmart hasn't talked about how the policy impacted the stores' bottom line. It never said it would last forever. It was a pilot program just in Florida that could end at any time. Notably, Walmart hasn't expanded the BOGO policy to other states with competitive grocery markets.

Presumably, the chain has gained some cost-conscious customers giddy to get cereal for $1.50 a box. But at what cost to already super thin margins? And, more importantly, at what pain to Publix?

The whole purpose of matching BOGO deals was to grab business from Publix, the biggest grocer in the state. It squashed arguments from Publix shoppers that Walmart doesn't have the lowest prices if you factor in sales and weekly BOGO deals, which Walmart doesn't have.

Any change in the policy won't sit well with shoppers looking to stretch their food dollars. It will go over even less for those who were looking for reasons to go back to Publix anyway.

Contact Susan Thurston at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110. Follow @susan_thurston.

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