NEW YORK - Forget style, quality and customer service. This holiday season, all that matters is price.
A week before Halloween and two full months before Christmas, stores are desperately trying to outdo each other in hopes of drawing in customers worn down by the economy.
Wal-Mart, the biggest store in the nation, joined the price wars Monday by announcing that it would give gift cards to shoppers if they buy something there and find it somewhere else cheaper.
Staples and Bed Bath & Beyond have already said they will match the lowest prices of Amazon.com and other big Internet retailers. Sears is going a step further, offering to beat a competitor's best price by 10 percent.
"The days of marketing the stuff in your store because it was a hot brand are over," says Dave Ratner, owner of Dave's Soda & Pet City, a Massachusetts pet food and supplies chain.
For the holidays, Ratner plans to offer 20 percent off pet accessories if customers buy a bag of dog food. Customers, he says, just want a deal.
Almost four years after the onset of the Great Recession, they've learned to expect one too. In better times, retailers could afford to keep prices higher and use promises of higher quality and better service to lure people into stores.
Those days are over. In a recent poll of 1,000 shoppers by America's Research Group, 78 percent said they were more driven by sales than they were a year ago. During the financial meltdown in 2008, that figure was only 68 percent.
Wal-Mart last year went back to its "everyday low prices" roots, a bedrock philosophy of founder Sam Walton, rather than slashing prices only on certain items to draw in customers. Now everyday low prices might not be low enough.
So it's trying something it is calling the Christmas Price Guarantee. It works this way: If you buy something at Wal-Mart from Nov. 1 to Dec. 25 and find the identical product elsewhere for less, you get a gift card in the amount of the difference.
The deal excludes online prices and some categories of merchandise — groceries, live plants, tobacco, prescription drugs and wireless devices that require a service agreement. But it is good even if weeks pass between your purchase and spotting the better deal. And it applies even to big items like TVs, for which prices can drop steeply as Christmas approaches.
Duncan MacNaughton, chief merchandising officer for Wal-Mart's U.S. stores, told reporters Monday that he has noticed "much more promotional intensity and gimmicks" among competitors.
"This gives customers peace of mind that we are an advocate for them," he said.
Toys R Us' big book of holiday offers will be packed this year with $8,000 of savings, compared with $5,600 last year, said Bob Friedland, a company spokesman. And it has added an incentive this year: If customers who sign up for its loyalty program spend $200 or more during the holiday season, they will get coupons on toys every month next year.
Retailers are responding to a customer base that is better informed, and more comfortable shopping online, than ever.
Jenna Wahl, a cardiac nurse from Bloomington, Ind., said she expects to spend about as much on holiday gifts this year as last — roughly $500 — but will try to get more for her money.
She'll be asking stores to do more price-matching and plans to use her iPhone to check prices and download coupons.
"I will take things back in order to get the better deal," she said.
Wal-Mart left online prices out of its Christmas offer, but other stores have decided they may not have that luxury. Staples, for example, is leaving it to the discretion of its store managers to decide whether to match online prices.
Sears' offer of beating a competitor by 10 percent will not apply to retailers that only do business online, such as Amazon, but will apply to prices that its brick-and-mortar competitors offer on their websites.
The holiday price wars mark an acceleration of a trend that has already swept the retail industry. Lowe's, the nation's No. 2 home improvement store, said in August it was starting to focus on everyday low prices for items that customers can easily comparison-shop at rivals like Home Depot and Sears.
And J.C. Penney, the department store chain, said earlier this month that it plans to overhaul its pricing strategy starting in February. So far, it has kept the details a secret.
Wal-Mart stepped up its price matching in April by directing store employees to comb through competitors' advertisements so price matches at the register would be easier. Wal-Mart's price match has been around for several years, but it is using it more as a competitive weapon to compete with rivals. It's launched ads playing up its price matching and has training sales associates to better police prices of local competitors. Customers will still have to ask for the price match.
"Customers have learned to wait on the next big deal because they know that if they wait long enough they can get a lower price than the everyday low price," Bob Gfeller, Lowe's executive vice president of merchandising, said to investors in August. "However, we must be vigilant to ensure that our customers perceive us to be priced competitively every day, even against online retailers and smaller category killers."
Indeed, 64 percent of shoppers polled said that it would take discounts between 30 percent to 50 percent to get them to spend, up from 54 percent last year, according to a recent Citi Investment Research & Analysis survey of a little more than 1,000 customers. Customers looking for 60 percent off as a big motivator to spend increased to 10 percent from 8 percent last year, the survey showed.
Bill Martin, co-founder Shoppertrak, which monitors customer traffic at 25,000 stores nationwide, says retailers are seeing that customers appear in droves when they have big sales for holiday weekends like Black Friday, Memorial Day or Father's Day. This creates peaks and valleys throughout the year, a trend that hasn't abated since the recession began in late 2007.
"The reality is consumers are targeted. They're well informed, and they've searched the Internet for price information," said Bill Martin, co-founder of ShopperTrak, which expects foot traffic to drop 2.2 percent during the holiday season compared with a year ago.