Amy Sancetta/AP
(Amy Sancetta/AP)

Last week, Wal-Mart said it was expanding its nascent online price-matching tool into four more cities, a signal that the world’s biggest retailer is increasingly embracing the idea of comparison shopping.

Wal-Mart introduced the tool — a streamlined version of its existing price-matching strategy called Savings Catchers — last month. The feature launched in three select markets, and last week Wal-Mart expanded it to include Dallas, Huntsville, Minneapolis and San Diego. There are no plans to include the Washington area yet, but Wal-Mart said it aims to take it national eventually.

The concept isn’t earth-shattering, and it mimicks the retailer’s own ad-match policy, where it gives shoppers the difference on an existing purchase if they can find a lower price at another retailer.

But the fact that Wal-Mart is testing a tool that does the work for shoppers is another sign that retailers have settled on a "if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em" philosophy when it comes to deal-hunting consumers.

“We’re seeing digital [trends] play an increasing role in our shopping,” said Molly Blakeman, a company spokesperson. With Savings Catcher, Wal-Mart is trying to “take the legwork out of looking at circulars and clipping coupons,” she said.

The program is supposed to be just the start of more digital initiatives, including possible e-coupons and online shopping lists, she said.

During the holidays, retailers steered shoppers toward in-house tools that aided showrooming — the practice of browsing items in-store and looking up better prices online. Wal-Mart’s move is line with retailers’ logic: We’d rather you looked for deals on our Web sites and apps instead of Amazon. And, if you’ve bothered to make the trip to the store in the first place, we’ll try and match what you find online so that we can close the deal.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of Wal-Mart’s decision to unveil this tool is what Blakeman called the company’s desire to “win at the intersection of physical and digital.”

Savings Catcher is different from the in-store ad-matching policy because “you can go home and do this from your couch,” said Blakeman.

Still, retailers can go only so far in helping consumers. Wal-Mart’s savings option has its limitations.

The Associated Press’s Anne D’Innocenzio writes:

Here’s how the tool works: A customer has to set up an account on, then logs onto the Savings Catcher page on and type in the number on their receipt. Shoppers need to register the number within seven days of purchase. Savings Catcher compares prices of every item on the receipt to a database of advertised prices of competitors.

Let’s break that down:

First, you have to purchase something from Wal-Mart before you can use the tool — an option that almost seems counter-intuitive from the consumer perspective considering that you’re more likely to do your research before you buy something.

You also have to sign up with Wal-Mart and provide them with a receipt number — which is another way to track shopping habits. This should not come as a surprise, and it is obviously not unique to Wal-Mart, but it adds to the body of information that retailers already collect on customers.

Blakeman said the ad-match policy serves customers before they make purchases, while Savings Catcher is meant to do so after the fact.

In addition, the Savings Catcher program uses an “independent third-party” to collect the weekly ads of “top retailers” in a geographic area, according to its Web site. In Charlotte for example, Wal-Mart compares prices with Harris Teeter, Kmart, CVS, Dollar Tree, Target and Walgreens, among others.

Wal-Mart didn’t provide specifics on the ‘third party’ that analyzes retail ads, or elaborate on its definition of top retailers. It’s still not clear if you’re better off doing your own research rather than relying on its recommendations.

But here’s a good reason for why you probably are. D'Innocenzio continues:

The prices at Wal-Mart stores are matched to competitive stores based on geographic location, but not online retailers. The tool doesn’t include purchases on store label brands or those made online. The tool also doesn’t apply to general merchandise like clothing or electronic gadgets, but does include groceries and things like detergent.

This  means that you still have to visit an online retailer on your own if you’re serious about finding a better deal. It makes sense from Wal-Mart’s business perspective, but technically, it doesn't give you the entire price snapshot.

More importantly, the savings option applies only to certain items and isn’t available across the board. This may change as Wal-Mart refines the program, but for now it has limited application.

The bottom line is: If you shop regularly at Wal-Mart, there’s no doubt that you’re saving money anyway. But if you don’t have the time or the inclination to research how much more you could be saving, Wal-Mart would like to gain your goodwill by doing it for you.