Sears, Roebuck & Co.'s new pledge to "meet or beat the competition's price" is an increasingly common strategy used by retailers to back up their claims of everyday low prices.
But many retail analysts say the "meet or beat" pledge is relatively meaningless. They say that exceptional bargains from careful comparative shopping are rare and that consistently low prices for most types of merchandise are now the rule for those companies that invite customers to compare."Among the discounters, there is no more than 5 percent difference in prices, one from another," said Clive Chajet, chairman of Lippincott & Margulies, a New York marketing firm.
So, since rough pricing parity already exists, the real competition between stores is based on other factors.
"The successful retailer is one whose major appeal is proprietary - the most fashionable, the most convenient, the most whatever," Chajet said.
"Choosing `lowest prices' as a retailer's primary appeal is the strategy you adopt when all else fails."
Sears officials say that while they have made "everyday low prices" the centerpiece of sweeping changes to make the company more competitive, they think that other factors will make the company stand out from the competition.
"We still think that we have a major advantage," said Marvin Stern, the company's vice president for appliances. "It's the integrity of the company behind the product we sell."
He cited Sears's credit plan, service organization and reputation for fair dealing as main elements of the company's image.
Retail analysts say price-matching claims present a number of problems in day-to-day practice.
While prices of electronics, electrical appliances and other products can easily be matched from store to store, for instance, many others, like prices of clothing and linens, are sometimes impossible to compare.
In addition, other questions invariably arise in each case. Will a store match the price of a competitor across the street? Across town? In a nearby town? In the next state?
"There are many caveats and loopholes," said Kurt Barnard, publisher of Barnard's Retail Marketing Report, an industry trade journal. "So many that it's difficult to establish full comparability."
Still, most major discount retailers have found it worthwhile to match competitors' prices when a customer requests it. Among those stores are Montgomery Ward, Wal-Mart Stores, K mart, Target and Circuit City Stores.
A few discount retailers, however, maintain that price-matching policies present an inconsistent image to consumers and invite the possibility of unfair treatment to some customers.
"Generally, people who do that do it because their prices are too high," said Michael Goldstein, vice chairman of Toys "R" Us Inc., which does not match prices.
"And why should one person who finds an ad get a lower price than someone else? You want your customers to get good prices all the time, every day, without having to bring someone else's ad in."