Originally created 07/30/01

Retailers go after refund spenders

You might be getting a tax rebate check from the government in the next few weeks, and Wal-Mart wants a piece of it.

So do Home Depot, Lowe's and Dell Computer.

And in a light-hearted commercial playing off the rebates, even Pizza Hut gets in the game, reminding viewers that its twisted crust pizzas are "the real economic windfall" at just $9.99.

Retailers hope the checks, up to $300 for individuals and $600 per couple, will loosen tight-fisted shoppers. But several big chains are aggressively targeting the rebates, which will arrive between now and late September.

Wal-Mart, the nation's biggest retailer, says it will cash the U.S. Treasury checks for free, even for people with no bank accounts. While no purchase is necessary, Wal-Mart suggests the money can be converted to Wal-Mart or Sam's Club shopping cards.

Arch-rival discounter Kmart Corp. goes a step further: free check-cashing plus a 5 percent bonus if you convert your rebate into a Kmart cash card that can be used only with the retailer.

Home Depot, meanwhile, thinks plenty of homeowners will pour the money into home improvement projects. A survey paid for by the Atlanta retailer found that more than 30 percent of those questioned said their tax money would go to items such as paint, carpet or tile.

In a new ad campaign, the chain tries to entice shoppers into the store even before the rebate arrives by offering six months of no interest on Home Depot bills.

Not to be outdone, Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse has suggestions for do-it-yourself projects less than $300 and $600 on its Web site and in its stores. In August, the chain will sponsor a contest to find the best home improvement project financed with a rebate. The prize? Another rebate.

To boost the sluggish PC business, Dell Computer Corp. is making an offer it hopes no taxpaying couple can resist: Slap down your $600 rebate and $100 cash for an entry-level desktop computer with a DVD drive or CD burner.

The timing of the rebates, which are the result of a tax cut package passed by Congress in May, finds many retailers locked into planned seasonal promotions or prepaid ad campaigns.

A Best Buy spokeswoman said the electronics chain will run its usual back-to-school campaign rather than target the one-time rebates, though it hopes people will race in with their checks to pick up must-haves, such as DVD players and Palm organizers.

Some retailers say the rebates aren't big enough to target with special campaigns. Several car dealers, for example, said a $300 check wasn't enough to make someone go out and buy a $30,000 car. And at Silverberg Jewelers in St. Petersburg, Fla., ad director Jan Swetic scoffed at targeting rebates. "It's not really enough to be buying jewelry with," he said.

Some advertising experts warn that if retailers appear too hungry for a piece of the rebate check, they might alienate shoppers.

"To some consumers, it could seem like you're a vulture, ready to grab people's money when they're leaving the bank," said Dan Nguyen, creative director of Fahlgren ad agency in Tampa, Fla. "We'd recommend our clients not do that."

While some retailers are reluctant to chase the rebates, charities and political groups have no such compunction. DonateRebate.org offers links to more than 700,000 non-profit groups that would be happy to get the contribution. Advocacy groups such as GiveForChange.com and MoveOn.org solicit rebate dollars to fight policies of the Bush administration.

And for those savings-prone taxpayers who choose to neither give it away nor spend it, American Express offers this sobering thought: $300 invested today, earning 8 percent interest annually, would be worth about $648 in 2011.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com.)


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