A Credit Card Promises to Do the Price-Matching Legwork for You

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In today’s nonstop-discount marketplace, virtually every shopper has purchased an item at what seems to be a fair price — only to kick oneself a week later when it pops up in a much cheaper sale.

At no time of year is this scenario more likely than the winter-holiday shopping period, overloaded as it is with furious promotions, aggressive price wars and one-upmanship among retailers. Taking advantage of retailer price-matching guarantees is one way to protect oneself from the possibility of overpaying.

Walmart is known for ad matching year-round, though like most retailer policies, it only guarantees to match the prices listed in the brochures of physical retail competitors. For the 2012 holidays Best Buy and Target are raising the stakes with promises to match competitors’ online prices as well.

Some have described online price matching as an especially risky gambit. Amazon routinely underprices Best Buy and other brick-and-mortar-based retailers, and by one estimate Best Buy could lose as much as $400 million in sales by dropping prices to Amazonian levels, if and when called upon by price-matching customers.

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Payment processor PayPal has also launched price matching for the holidays, ensuring reimbursements in case a consumer pays for an item (using PayPal, of course) and later finds the identical item for sale at a cheaper price. PayPal’s offer is in effect for purchases made by Dec. 31, and the cheaper price must be found advertised within 30 days of the original purchase.

What the price-matching guarantees of PayPal, Walmart and the others all have in common is that the onus is on the consumer to invoke the policy. It’s entirely up to the customer to shop around — before and after the initial purchase — in order to find out if a better price is out there. If the shopper doesn’t take these steps, the price-matching policy is useless.

Citi, a new entrant in the price-matching mix, promises that it’ll take on the burden of shopping around for weary, shopped-out customers. The new Citi Price Rewind program, which is free for Citi cardholders, brings with it the possibility of someone else tracking the prices of your purchases. If and when something you’ve bought suddenly goes on sale for a cheaper price, Citi reimburses you the difference.

(MORE: Why Holiday Season ‘Self-Gifting’ Is Such a Huge Retail Trend)

As reported in American Banker:

‘Citi card members don’t have to find and prove a lower price,’ said Ralph Andretta, head of co-brands and loyalty at Citi Cards, during a conference call with reporters. ‘We do the work, and there’s no onus on you to prove that you found a lower price.’

Sounds terrific. But as you’d imagine, there is plenty of fine print, and more than a few tricky stipulations. First off, customers can’t expect to be reimbursed if the item in question is discovered to be cheaper by a few bucks. The item must be at least $25 less expensive than your purchase in order for Citi to bother paying you the difference. This is probably O.K.: it’s the truly hefty price drops on big-ticket merchandise that drive consumers the most batty.

Next, while Citi does the price tracking at hundreds of major retail sites, it’s up to customers to officially register their purchases at the Citi site — merely using a Citi card for the transaction is not enough. Once that’s done, Citi conducts price tracking on each registered product for 30 days. If a price is found to be at least $25 cheaper within 30 days of the original purchase, the customer will be notified that they’re eligible for a refund, whereupon the customer must file a claim, complete with a copy of the receipt. Claims can be filed online, or by fax or snail mail.

The way the system works, Citi doesn’t seem to have much incentive to locate cheaper prices for customers; by doing that job well, the card issuer obviously runs the risk of cutting a lot of reimbursement checks. But it’s assumed all is on the up-and-up. There is, however, a protocol for submitting a manual claim if you’ve found a cheaper price than what Citi’s tracking services turned up (or failed to turn up, as it were).

(MORE: By Matching Prices, Are Best Buy and Target Doing Exactly What Amazon Wants?)

In addition to there being a minimum reimbursement amount ($25), there’s a maximum as well — $250 per item and no more than $1,000 per calendar year. While the program is meant to provide shoppers with some peace of mind, as well as boost the chance of swiping a Citi card especially for big-ticket purchases, the truth is that, as always, it’s still wise to shop around on one’s own.