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It’s a clever, and increasingly common, promotion designed to help gain customers’ trust in a tough economy – promise to “freeze” prices for weeks or months at a time, so shoppers know they’ll always get a good deal at your store. But once you get yourself into it, how do you get yourself out without looking like a chump?

That’s what one grocery chain is finding out, as it puts its “price freeze” program out to pasture.

New York-based Wegmans has a semi-fanatical fan base. But it’s now running the risk of rubbing them all the wrong way, by eliminating its price freezes. Introduced in February 2011, the program locked in prices on dozens of products each season, with a promise not to raise prices even if Wegmans’ own cost for the products went up. The program was offered for six consecutive seasons – until now.

As summer begins turning to fall, and the economy shows some signs of improvement, Wegmans is delicately trying to get out of the whole price-freeze thing. “We announced a Seasonal Price Freeze list when the country was slipping into deep recession; it proved reassuring to consumers who needed some predictability in their lives,” Wegmans’ Senior Vice President of Consumer Affairs Mary Ellen Burris wrote on the Wegmans website. “Now there is some improvement in the economy, although not to the degree we’d all like. We’ve decided to eliminate the seasonal list with an end date, and focus on our basic philosophy of consistent prices all the time on items families use most in our new ‘Seasonal Family Favorites’ list.”

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That “seasonal family favorites” list is similar to earlier price freeze lists, but it’s “consistent low price” promise falls short of a promise not to boost prices at some unspecified time in the future. Guess it depends on one’s definition of “consistent”.

Of course that’s not to say that, freed from the shackles of frozen prices, Wegmans stores are gleefully slapping new higher price tags on everything. At least not yet. A spot check by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle found that certain items like Russet potatoes and marinated chicken breasts were more expensive now than they were when they were on the price freeze list, but most other prices remain the same. Wegmans never said the end of the price freeze program will mean automatic price hikes – but most customers can read between the lines and realize that it’s a distinct possibility once the dust settles.

As we’ve seen with the recent trend toward eliminating double coupons, when one grocery chain eliminates a savings program, others see an opening to follow. So shoppers at other Northeastern chains like Giant Eagle and Weis may want to watch closely to see what their stores do. Giant Eagle debuted an occasional “Low Price Lock” program last fall, while Weis is in the midst of its 11th round of price freezes since 2009. During that time, Weis says, customers have saved more than $45 million.

Those savings, though, have to come from somewhere. After its first year of price freezes, Wegmans was quick to point out that it cost the company more than $8 million to run the promotion. But given the positive feedback, store officials said “there was no question that we would come back with another list.”

How quickly things change. But look on the bright side – a low-price lock not only means that prices won’t rise, it means they won’t go any lower either. So the removal of the price freezes could even cause some prices to fall.

One can only hope. You can be sure that Wegmans shoppers will be watching closely to see if they do.

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