Last-minute shoppers beware: Online pricing isn't always available in stores

Savvy shoppers know the drill. Before plunking down your dollars, you do your homework and comparison shop, which usually involves surfing a retailer's Web site to check out online deals.

While that practice can prove fruitful for BestBuy customers (I scored a personal DVD player when buying a flat screen online), that's not always the case if books are on your gift-giving list.

It seems buyers certainly have to beware when trying to score a last-minute book deal this year since Barnes & Noble customers shouldn't expect to pay the same in person as they do online.

It turns out the retail giant's in-store and online businesses are operated as two separate entities. Say what?

"Each offers its own unique selection and competitive price structure," said Mary Ellen Keating, Barnes & Noble senior vice president of corporate communications and public affairs. "Neither business advertises the other's price structure."

Neither honors each other's price structure, either, a lesson I learned the hard way when I paid $16.40 more for Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking ,Volume 1" by purchasing it in person versus online. Guess that's what I get for waiting until the last minute. Oh yeah, and for assuming that Barnes & Noble the store and Barnes & Noble.com were one in the same.

After checking the price of the book online but needing the book for a birthday party that day, I headed to my local Barnes & Noble to purchase it immediately. The manager at that store explained the higher price of the book in-store by saying, "We're not the same company, so we don't honor their pricing. You could order it online and get free shipping, or pay a little more for the convenience of taking it home today."

Since I needed the book that day, Barnes and Noble had me behind the proverbial eight ball. But I certainly wouldn't call paying more than $16 (plus tax) more convenient.

In all fairness, on its Web site, BarnesandNoble.com refers to its selling price as "our price" and the verbiage "retail" relates to the general publisher's list price.

And Keating of Barnes & Noble adds, "Both companies share the same mission –- to provide book lovers with a vast selection, excellent service and terrific values. Therefore, we make an effort to work together whenever possible and do so through our return policies and by providing general store information on the BarnesandNoble.com Web site."

The practice of "special" online pricing isn't unique to this bookseller. Retailers like Walmart and BestBuy have long been offering customers deals when they shop online. But in most cases, unless the online price is noted as "online only," many retailers will match their online alter ego's prices.

Interestingly, gift cards are unaffected by Barnes & Noble operating as two companies. Customers can purchase and use gift cards universally, either online or in person at any of the retailer's locations.

"[Consumers should] be assured that our intention is only to make shopping with us convenient and informative," Keating told us. They should also be assured they'll pay more for that convenience.

And paying more in person isn't the only negative thing Barnes and Noble customers might face this season. The company recently announced that its Nook e-readers wouldn't be shipped in time for the holidays. To compensate customers waiting for their Nooks, Barnes & Noble is offering a $100 gift certificate to those affected by the delay.

Sound off: What is convenience worth to you? Would you pay more to be able to take something home today vs. waiting for it to be shipped? How much are you willing to pay for convenience?

Gina Roberts-Grey is a freelance writer specializing in health, celebrity and consumer issues.

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