Consumers have been flexing their smart-spending muscles, using smartphone price-checking against the retailers to get the best price they can find. But are retailers secretly trying to thwart this shopping behavior? After all, it's pitting them against each other based only on the lowest price.
"An increasing number of consumers are coming into the stores empowered with information, and the retailers are trying to figure out just how to respond," says Michael Paulson, retail expert at Decide.com, a free website designed to help consumers predict prices based on proprietary price and model predictions.
I was not surprised when The New York Times reported a couple of weeks ago some stores were fighting back. Even Best Buy was not displaying universal product codes, or UPCs, on their new shelf stickers. Instead, the electronics giant displayed their own stock-keeping units, or SKUs, and quick response, or QR, codes on some products.
"Retailers can simply give a product a different model number to reduce the efficacy of product searches, too," says Paulson.
Did you realize price-checking also doesn't work when retailers sell products made only for their stores or in bundles created exclusively for them? I wondered if this was happening in department stores with basics you should be able to compare, such as name-brand sheets or cookware sets. One name-brand bedding supplier I called said, "We rarely create the same product for different stores. The specs or the sets are always slightly changed so they all have different UPCs."
This means when you shop at stores such as Target or Macy's, which sell branded and private-label items, many prices cannot be scanned and compared because the item has an exclusive UPC. This trend is on the rise, says Paulson.
So what's a consumer to do if you can't scan the bar codes, or no other results are found when scanning? Paulson's advice:
Go shopping armed with a list of brands you would consider and specific features you're looking for along with your budget. This way, you can browse and find the similar items to see if you can snag a good deal. You can try searching model numbers first, although these can also change from store to store.