Connecticut Investigating Best Buy’s Intra-Store Web Site

Written by Evan Schuman
March 3rd, 2007

Best Buy is getting into some hot water because of an intrastore version of its Web site.

The Connecticut Attorney General’s office has launched a probe into the chain’s use of an internal version of its Web site that looks and acts virtually identical to the public Web version except that it sometimes offers higher prices, according to Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.

Blumenthal, in a brief telephone interview with StorefrontBacktalk on Saturday, said his office began the probe after a column published by The Hartford Courant raised questions about the site.

Although the probe began on Feb. 9, Best Buy officials have yet to formally talk with the Attorney General’s investigators, instead opting to send “a written communication,” Blumenthal said. That communication was less than explicit, he said. In an interview with the Courant, Blumenthal said, “Their responses seem to raise as many questions as they answer. Their answers are less than crystal clear.”

What Best Buy is accused of doing is misleading consumers. The original reports had store associates disputing special offers announced on the Web site and making their case by calling up a copy of the Web site right there and then, in the store.

The initial question raised by the reports were whether this was simply a matter of having Web site prices for Web purchases?requiring the delay of shipments for the consumer and the lack of brick-and-mortar costs for the retailer?being different than in-store prices. But the initial defenses offered by Best Buy?both to local media and to the Connecticut Attorney General’s Office?make no mention of this. If that was the case here, one would think it would be the first defense offered.

The Courant columnist, George Gombossy, told StorefrontBacktalk that employees described to him their ability to access either the public Web site or the intra-store version, depending on what they wanted to do.

He published an account of the columnist’s attempts to replicate the problems of one of his readers and was indeed able to reproduce the apparent dual Web site bait-and-switch scheme, he said. He wrote about how one “long-time employee” showed him both versions of the site.

“The salesman told me it was a site that only employees could access because it contained confidential information as well as item prices. Sometimes, as in the case of (a product that had been purchased by the reader who complained), the clerk said, the intranet site would not show the discount. In rare cases, the intranet site will show an even lower price than the Internet site.”

Best Buy officials did not immediately return our calls seeking comment, but they apparently did issue a statement to the Courant that said, in part: “Although we have an intra-store web site in place to support store operations–including products and pricing–we are reminding our employees how to access the external web site to ensure customers are receiving the best possible product price.”

That line prompted Gombossy to try and put that education process into context. “That last sentence seems to indicate that Best Buy, which is supposed to be staffed by tech-savvy employees, is putting the blame on memory lapses: that employees have somehow forgotten how to access from the store. Having been to many Best Buy stores where some helpful employees showed me how they access the intranet and Internet, I can assure Best Buy officials that the re-education process will probably not be lengthy,” he said. “After making sure the computer is turned on, employees should click twice on the Yahoo Internet icon and then type in”

The initial reports of the incident suggested the possibility that Best Buy was simply displaying a local version of the Web site, so that consumers could peruse their Web content but be unable to surf over to a competitor’s site or a price-comparison site or even to a publication such as Consumer Reports.

If that had been the case, then the pricing disconnects might have been nothing sinister, but merely a result of the fact that the external Web site is updated much more frequently than a static version in the stores.

But some of our own conversations with Best Buy employees tonight cast doubt on that theory, with employees saying that they are only aware of the public version. (Gombossy’s reporting also found many Best Buy employees who were unaware of two sites.)

Another scenario is that the dual site effort might be regionally localized, as opposed to being a national corporate effort. But that also seems unlikely, as such as site would likely be sanctioned by corporate. Why would such a site be created and then only offered to isolated areas? Is this some sort of a pilot program? This is one story StorefrontBacktalk will be watching closely.


4 Comments | Read Connecticut Investigating Best Buy’s Intra-Store Web Site

  1. Rusty Weston Says:

    Good story, Evan!

    I think Best Buy has clearly screwed up here. It’s hard to see the advantages of their effort compared to the standard e-commerce site that employs demographically-targeted discount codes. Consumers have come to accept that type of segmentation even though it’s a dead giveaway that we’re not getting their best prices!

  2. Jeff Says:

    I was at bestbuy yesterday and the day before purchasing an airport express and got duped by their employees. I was so upset after I got home I called their complaint line and Jill their rep. admitted this is true. I went back to the store in Hawthorne CA and questioned the employee who lied to me, her supervisor and the operations manager. The store admitted to me that the upper management is aware of the intranet however they do not tell the employees this. I have proof, employee numbers and support from the local management if anyone wants it…

    This is an obvious scheme by c-level executives at best buy to scam lower income and impulse buyers.

    Do not support corporate scum at worst-buy when they make their hourly employees lie for their dirty work.

  3. Joe Says:

    I’m sure Best Buy is just offering prices on their website at a nationally priced leveled, while also offering prices on a local level in the store intranet. Every retailer does this and I’m surprised it’s become such a big deal.

  4. Robin J. Stephenson Says:

    Just a note to say Besy Buy is doing the same thing in Ohio. They tried
    to and suceeded in fooling me twice!


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