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About Apple’s Price Matching Policy

So I recall all those lurid commercials of many years ago from certain high-power electronic retailers promising that they positively won’t be undersold. Of course they had so many terms and conditions in those offers that few people who requested a price match or a refund for overpayment were ever actually compensated for their efforts.

It’s a game, really, meant to reassure the customer, not a promise that they expect to have to fulfill very often.

With the economy in shreds for this holiday season, folks are talking up the claim that Apple’s own retail stores have been given the marching orders to match prices from third-party retailers.

Now I suppose you really can’t complain. After all, you will, I’m sure, take a lower price wherever you can get it for your new Mac or iPod. But, sorry folks, the iPhone 3G isn’t part of the plan.

However, according to published reports, Apple has traditionally told its managers that they do indeed have the authority to meet the competition head on, only that policy apparently hasn’t been given much publicity.

Now it’s also true that price reductions on basic Apple hardware aren’t traditionally that high, but that $100 or $200 you might save on a new MacBook or MacBook Pro can certainly finance extra memory, or you can use it to pay off a few bills.

Then again, Apple has historically been so overpriced when it comes to RAM — and they use the same RAM you can buy at a fraction of the price from other vendors — they could certainly have lots and lots of bargaining room.

On the other hand, when it comes to sales tax, they are in the twilight zone. For customers in the U.S., they charge whatever tax your state collects. Other online retailers don’t, although, in theory, you may have to pay that tax direct to your state.

In any case, the growth of Apple’s incredibly-successful retail chain has been a mixed bag for other dealers, especially when they’re located near a company store. But if it’s not a pricing issue, what’s the problem?

When it comes to sales and support, that depends. Some third-party resellers are long-time Mac fans, and they try their level best to do right by the platform. They will provide such value extras as migration to a new Mac and the ability to download software updates if you’re bandwidth challenged at home. Moreover, they are busy refashioning their interiors to match Apple’s more closely.

Where they can’t compete is inventory. Take the iPhone 3G. You’d think that AT&T, which is the exclusive carrier for the iPhone in the U.S., would get its fare share of stock from the get go, and that was simply not the case. My personal experience simply echoes what most of you know already.

When the iPhone 3G was first released, I tried to take the easy way out, since Apple’s own retail outlets involved a drive of 30 minutes or more. I also considered the cost of gas, and how much my free time is worth, and you can see where I made the wrong decision.

The two nearest AT&T factory stores only had a few dozen units in stock, and not even all the available configurations and colors. Only those who showed up real early could take one home. The rest were asked to pay for a rain check, and take delivery when new supplies arrived, which was expected to happen a few days later.

Since I wanted instant gratification, I called an Apple Store at random and asked them how they were faring. They said they had plenty available, that, based on the current crowd, it would take about an hour to actually get into the store. Of course they couldn’t guarantee they wouldn’t sell out by the time I got there, but I decided to take the chance anyway.

When I arrived, one of Apple’s sales reps was busy working the crowd and giving them face time on his iPhone 3G. Yes, he assured me, everyone in the line would be able to buy the one they wanted. True to the original estimate, I did indeed enter the storefront 60 minutes later, but waited another 30 minutes to get served.

You can understand why third-party resellers are paranoid that Apple gets priority, even though they claim they are fair to all their dealers. Sure, right.

The other day, a cashier at a local convenience store, noticing my Apple T-shirt, asked for the location of the nearest Apple Store. He only wanted an iPod, so I reminded him that there was a Best Buy and an independent Apple dealer just five minutes away.

“Well, I know that, but I want to be sure that I get the color I want.”

With that sort of attitude, it’s not just price matching alone that sells product for Apple. It’s the perception of favoritism. That may be good for the customer in the short term, but not if Apple wants to have a robust third-party dealer network.