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Undercover Shopping: Testing Holiday Promises

Every year it seems the holiday season gets more competitive for retailers. First it was free shipping, now it's free layaway and price-matching in guaranteed, speedy in-store pickup.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Promises, promises. But do the programs really work?

CNBC producers and I went shopping undercover so we wouldn't get any special treatment.

Many retailers say they'll match their competitor's prices, but there are certainly exclusions and nuances from retailer to retailer.

We chose the Sony WiFi Built-in Blu-ray Disc Player BDP-S390 for our mission, and three major retailers: Best Buy, Target and Wal-Mart Stores .

A little online research showed Target pricing the DVD player at $139.99. Wal-Mart's selling the same one for $129 dollars on its website. Best Buy offers a "special price" that you can only see at check out. It turned out to be the cheapest at $108.99.

(Read More: Will Electronic Device Sales Light up the Holidays?)

Both Wal-Mart and Target have price-matching policies posted online, and Best Buy also has a holiday price-matching program, but since it has the lowest price we didn't need to test it there.

Armed with a print out of the Best Buy deal, we made a stop at a Walmart store. There, the Blu Ray DVD player had a list price of $138, despite the fact that it was listed on the store's website for $129.

At first, an associate said he wasn't sure he could match Best Buy's price because it was from the web. However, after a discussion with a manager, it is decided Walmart will indeed match the price.

(Read More: Gift Ideas for Everyone on Your List.)

When I went to buy the Blu Ray player, a scan of the barcode revealed the price had been reduced to $98, much to our surprise. So in the end, the price-match wasn't necessary.

We then hit a Target store. Once again, the employee said he wasn't sure he could match an online deal. But after a little pushing, and a radio call to a manager, he did match the price.

We learned some lessons from our price-matching experiment. First, make sure you've done the research yourself, and have the print out—either from the web or physical advertisement—with you and make sure it has a date.

Second, if the associate isn't sure, or says no, push to speak with a manager. Some retailers will match online prices, some will only match brick and mortar competitors, and some will not match at all, but it's worth asking.

Our next test was in-store pickup.

Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Let's be honest, there's nothing more frustrating than battling holiday traffic, then fighting the crowds inside the store, only to wait in long lines to check out. A number of retailers hope to offer some relief by allowing shoppers purchase online and pick up at the store, cutting down wait times, at least in theory.

This year Sears is making the 5 minute pick-up promise. If you make a purchase online and drive to the store, they'll have the item loaded in your car within a surprisingly short 5 minute window. Even on Black Friday.

Best Buy and Walmart also offer in-store pickup, though with no time guarantee. So who beat the clock?

We went online and ordered the Nintendo Sports Console from each retailer.

(Read More: 10 Must-Have Videogames This Holiday Season.)

The clock started the moment we clicked buy, and stopped when we were notified the console was ready for pick-up.

Wal-Mart sent us a "ready for pick up" email in 41 minutes. Sears shot us an email for pick up in just 8 minutes. But after an hour and 15 minutes, there was still no notification from Best Buy. Though when we checked the order status online it said "ready."

Clear winner in round one: Sears.

Now for round two, the actual store pickup.

The clock started when we handed over the receipt and stopped when we got the console in our hand.

Sears claims it will get you in and out fast, promoting the "5 minute promise."

At the Jersey City location, there's a kiosk inside to scan the confirmation email. The 5 minute clock starts ticking. We're out the door 1 minute and 44 seconds later. The 5 minute promise achieved.

Wal-Mart makes no pick-up time promise, but we started the clock running after presenting the receipt at the store in Secaucus, NJ. We had the console in hand after just 2 minutes and 5 seconds.

There are no guarantees on speed at Best Buy either. But, we handed over the receipt, and we got the console just 1 minute and 48 seconds later

Sears won again, by 4 seconds.

We should point out that we did these tests before Black Friday, and there is a human element involved, so experiences and time will likely vary from store to store, maybe even region to region. But at least so far, retailers are passing our tests.

Now we'll test the return policies … I don't need three Blu Ray players and three Nintendo Sports Consoles!

-By Courtney Reagan, CNBC Reporter

Questions? Comments? Email us at consumernation@cnbc.com. Follow Courtney Reagan on Twitter@CourtReagan.

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