Walmart, in its fight to grab more grocery business in Florida, is going after one of Publix's top selling points: BOGOs.
The world's largest retailer is now matching buy-one-get-one-free sales from Publix and other grocery chains at its Florida Walmart stores.
"Our customers have told us they want us to accept BOGO offers from other retailers, and that is what we are doing," said Walmart spokeswoman Molly Philhours.
Under the new policy, the Bentonville, Ark.-based company will match other stores' BOGO deals using Walmart's everyday price, even if it's lower than the competitor's price. That means a BOGO deal for Cheez-It crackers costing $3.69 at Publix could actually cost $2.50 at Walmart.
Stores will keep track of BOGO deals at Publix, Winn-Dixie and other stores and give them to customers who ask at checkout, Philhours said. Shoppers do not need to bring in a competitor's ad.
The match guarantee squashes many shoppers' arguments that Walmart doesn't have the lowest prices if you factor in sales and weekly BOGO deals offered at other grocery chains. It applies to all Walmart stores, Supercenters and Neighborhood Markets across Florida but does not apply in other states.
"It would certainly seem to be aimed squarely at Publix,'' said Bill Wunner, owner of the website Coupons in the News. "BOGOs are their hallmarks and have been the basis of Publix's comparison ads.''
In March, Lakeland-based Publix launched an advertising campaign reminding customers that the store has affordable prices if you shop the sales. It came in response to Walmart's yearlong price-comparison campaign that showed people can save money shopping at Walmart.
The new BOGO-matching policy underscores the retail giant's commitment to having the lowest price in town without the hassle of sales and coupons. It also serves as a warning to regional competitors that Walmart isn't too big to fight the little guys.
"Take on Walmart on price if you dare because they will undercut you,'' Wunner said, noting that Publix was one the few grocers nationwide to counter Walmart's ads. "Walmart always seems to have a way to best anyone on price.''
Asked about the new deal matching, Publix officials emphasized its focus on quality food and customer service.
It's unknown at this point what, if any, action Publix might take.
"We will continue to offer quality products at a competitive price and differentiate ourselves by delivering premier customer service,'' spokesman Brian West said. "Our customers know that Walmart doesn't always have the lowest price.''
Walmart has been aggressively fighting for a larger share of Tampa Bay's grocery dollars. Last year, Walmart ranked second with more than 26 percent of the market, up from single digits several years ago. Publix led with 43 percent.
The war has been tough on smaller grocers that can't compete on price but also can't compete with Publix's darling reputation.
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Earlier this year, Sweetbay closed 33 underperforming stores and later was bought out by Winn-Dixie's parent company. Prior to that, Albertson's shuttered all but a few of its Florida stores.
Walmart previously honored competitors' ads for a specific item for a specific price but did not match BOGO deals that lacked an actual price. Walmart generally would not, for instance, honor prices listed as "save up to" a certain amount, as was often the case with Publix ads. Sometimes a Walmart store would match BOGO deals on an individual basis, but that went against corporate policy.
Its BOGO matching in Florida went into effect Sept. 23 as a pilot program and could remain indefinitely. Walmart officials said the response so far has been very favorable.
Bob Cappello, a Walmart shopper who lives part-time in Lakeland, described it as a bold move that could certainly lure shoppers away from Publix.
"For the people who do the coupon clipping, they won't have to go to Walmart and then to Publix,'' he said. "Now, they'll be able to get everything at Walmart.''
Susan Thurston can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 225-3110. Follow her on Twitter @susan_thurston.