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WALMART STOPS MATCHING BOGO DEALS

The retailer wants shoppers to use Savings Catcher, a new price comparison program.

BOGO is a no-go at Walmart.

Starting Monday, the discount retailer will no longer match buy-one-get-one free offers at competitors' grocery stores in Florida, including Publix, its top rival.

Instead, Walmart wants shoppers to use its price matching program called Savings Catcher, which rolled out nationwide in August.

"Matching BOGO offers at Walmart's everyday low price has been a test that has only been executed in Florida stores,'' said Walmart spokeswoman Molly Blakeman. "With the introduction of Savings Catcher we have decided to end this test and align the policy in Florida with Walmart's company policy.''

With Savings Catcher, customers enter their receipt number through Walmart's website or smartphone app, and Walmart automatically compares prices at nearby grocery stores. Any lower price difference is loaded onto a Walmart gift card for future purchases.

The change in policy disappointed some shoppers who had switched to Walmart to take advantage of the BOGO matching.

"That's a big shock,'' said Lisa Gabrelcik of Oldsmar. "It's definitely going to affect my shopping. I started buying all of my BOGOs at Walmart, but now I'm going to go back to Publix.''

Gabrelcik considers Savings Catcher a hassle and wonders how elderly or low-income shoppers without access to a computer or smartphone will be able to take advantage of it. She also doesn't like having to pay full price for items up front and redeem savings on future shopping trips.

Walmart began honoring competitors' BOGO deals in Florida in October 2013 as a way to lure shoppers from other retailers. It matched the deals using Walmart's everyday low prices, meaning customers usually paid less for BOGO deals than they did at other stores with higher prices.

That's no longer the case with Savings Catcher. It price matches on the competitor's price, not Walmart's.

For example, on a box of Cheerios that costs $4.69 at Publix and $2.50 at Walmart, the shopper would receive just 31 cents in savings. That's the difference between the cost of two boxes at Walmart - $5 - and two boxes on BOGO special at Publix for $4.69.

Patrice Wolfe of South Tampa said Savings Catcher alone isn't enough to keep her shopping at Walmart for most of her groceries.

"Obviously, I would prefer the BOGOs over the Savings Catcher,'' she said. "Now, I'm probably going to go to Publix for the BOGOs and Walmart for things that are better priced.''

Walmart officials didn't elaborate on reasons for ending the BOGO policy. They also didn't discuss what impact it had on the company's bottom line.

It's doubtful money was a deciding factor, said Bill Wunner, owner of Coupons in the News, a website about couponing and saving money. More likely, it was about streamlining operations and eliminating confusion.

"BOGO matching was an interesting idea in theory, but a lot of people complained about cashiers not understanding it,'' he said. "This is an effort to automate and take out the cashier.''

From the start, Walmart stores struggled with the policy. Not every clerk kept track of competitors' weekly ads, and some managers required shoppers to bring proof. Customers complained about having to fight to get the deals, adding to already long checkout lines. Some even accused Walmart of understocking BOGO items intentionally.

Pat Hall of Tampa said she stopped trying to match BOGOs after it took three trips to a Walmart to straighten out her bill. Her take on ending the policy? Good riddance.

"They were inept at doing it,'' said Hall, who prefers shopping at Publix and Aldi, a discount grocer. "I don't think there's enough training of the cashiers to be able to handle the minutiae of getting it right. They're used to just scanning items.''

Walmart officials say Savings Catcher will simplify the process. Shoppers will no longer have to bring in competitors' ads or rely on cashiers to enter it correctly. Savings will be calculated online. So far, the program has saved shoppers $3 million nationwide, Blakeman said.

"We've seen our customers get really excited about it,'' she said. "It takes a lot of the work off our customers.''

Stores started alerting customers to the change several days ago but aren't planning a formal announcement. Shoppers with questions can inquire with their cashier or ask to speak to a store manager.

The change comes days after Publix tweaked its coupon policy to limit shoppers to using eight of the same coupons per day, per household. The move was intended to discourage coupon abuse and prevent shoppers from buying up all products on a shelf.

Contact Susan Thurston at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110. Follow @susan_thurston.

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