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Publix fights back against Walmart's price-comparison campaign

A Publix billboard along Interstate 275 near the Gandy Boulevard exit touts the supermarket chain’s affordability by referencing Walmart’s price-comparison ad campaign.

LARA CERRI | Times

A Publix billboard along Interstate 275 near the Gandy Boulevard exit touts the supermarket chain’s affordability by referencing Walmart’s price-comparison ad campaign.

Publix has taken off the gloves in the fight for our grocery money.

Nearly a year after Walmart began its price-comparison ad campaign against smaller grocers, the Lakeland-based supermarket chain is battling back.

Publix has launched what amounts to a "bring it on" campaign to reassure customers that the store has affordable prices — if you shop the sales and buy-one-get-one deals. The no-frills message is clear: "Walmart doesn't always have the lowest price."

The ads started popping up a few weeks ago on area billboards and radio. Signs posted in Publix stores compare items in their weekly fliers to Walmart's, much like Walmart does in its ad campaign.

For example, this week two boxes of Mueller's pasta cost $2.72 at Walmart versus $1.37 on special at Publix. Two boxes of Duncan Hines cake mix cost $2.48 at Walmart versus $1.67 at Publix. Buy every item on sale, and you'd save $97.86.

The campaign underscores what many Publix shoppers have claimed all along, that you can save money on groceries if you do a little homework. Sure, Fancy Feast might be cheaper at Walmart, but once you factor in the BOGO deals on Thomas' English muffins and Mott's apple juice, you leave paying less.

Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten said the ads reflect the chain's stance that meeting customers' high expectations doesn't have to mean higher prices. The campaign rolled out March 7 for its stores in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee.

"We want our loyal and potential customers to know that we offer more than clean stores, quality products and friendly service. We offer great value," Patten said.

Walmart isn't blind to Publix's counterattacks and has no plans of backing down. The Bentonville, Ark., chain is filming TV commercials about price-comparison shopping in 50 markets nationwide. It knows a lot of people don't like to bother with sales and coupons. Just give them the best price.

Some grocers are responding. Just last week, Giant Eagle, based in Pennsylvania, announced it was cutting the prices on more than 3,000 popular grocery items — a move expected to save customers about 15 percent on their grocery bills.

"Competitors don't like it when we tell customers to compare prices and see for themselves, but we think customers deserve the chance to find the most affordable prices possible, particularly in these difficult economic times," said Walmart spokesman Bill Wertz.

In the end, he said, competition will lead to lower prices for everyone.

Bill Wunner, owner of the website Coupon In The News, said Publix is one of the few chains nationwide to challenge Walmart's campaigns. Another is St. Louis-based Schnucks, which filed complaints with the attorneys general in Missouri and Illinois claiming Walmart's price-comparison ads are "misleading" and "willfully deceptive."

While there's always a danger of getting into a costly tit-for-tat with Walmart, Publix must have felt it couldn't sit idle any longer, Wunner said. As the dominant grocer in Florida, it has turf to defend.

"Walmart is the biggest challenge they've had so far in Florida," he said. "Publix wants its customers to shop the sales and use coupons. It doesn't want to lower prices across the board."

Before this campaign, Publix has "hidden between the lines" that it has higher prices, he said. Its motto, "Where shopping is a pleasure," doesn't come cheap.

As a Publix shopper, I interpret the ads as a reminder that, "Yes, you're a smart shopper. Don't listen to them."

Honestly, I already knew I'm a savvy shopper, but thanks for the boost. Watching two retail giants compete for my business is kind of fun.

People like it when the home team fights back.

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110.

Publix fights back against Walmart's price-comparison campaign 03/23/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 22, 2013 6:12pm]

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