December 23, 2007
The Connecticut attorney general's office sued Best Buy in May, charging the electronics heavyweight with using deceptive in-store websites to trick customers into paying higher prices than available on the company's actual site.
"We thought Best Buy had addressed this," Connecticut Atty. Gen. Richard Blumenthal told me the other day. "That's what they said to us. Apparently that's not the case."
Last week, Simi Valley resident Leigh Murphy, 53, went online in search of a new DVD player. He finally settled on a Toshiba model that he found on Bestbuy.com, marked down from $79.99 to $71.99.
He decided to stop by the store and buy it there instead.
"I just assumed the same price would be available," Murphy said. "That's why I didn't order it online."
He found the DVD player at the store without difficulty, but it was selling for the full $79.99 price. Murphy asked a salesman about the discrepancy. He said he'd found it online for less.
The salesman guided Murphy to one of Best Buy's in-store kiosks, which displayed a page virtually identical to the website Murphy had seen at home. He called up the Toshiba device and, lo and behold, no more markdown. It was going for the full list price.
Murphy, an engineer, wasn't sure what to make of this. So he returned home and went back online. Once again he visited Bestbuy.com, and once again the DVD player came up at the reduced price of $71.99.
So Murphy purchased the player online and then returned to the store to pick it up. But the experience left him wondering.
"It seems like they have one website online and a fake website that's available only in the store," Murphy said.
That's also what Blumenthal in Connecticut concluded after receiving numerous complaints from local residents. He called Best Buy's in-store kiosks "an Internet bait-and-switch" that allowed the store to charge higher prices once it got online shoppers through the door.
"Consumers seeking bargains were led to believe that lower online prices had expired or never existed," Blumenthal said. "Best Buy treated its customers like suckers."
Jerry Farrell Jr., commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection, said in a statement that the in-store kiosks appear to be "an intentional effort to mislead."
The state's lawsuit is proceeding.
Sue Busch, a Best Buy spokeswoman, acknowledged that customers may encounter different prices on the company's website than may be available in the store -- and at the store's kiosk.
"Bestbuy.com is the national price," she said. "Individual store prices may vary from market to market."
Busch said the in-store kiosks closely resemble Best Buy's website "for the sake of efficiency and to ensure that customers who were familiar with the national website could easily navigate the in-store kiosk to find what they were seeking."
She said the kiosks were never intended "for price-match purposes," but admitted that "a small percentage of customers did not receive a price match when they should have due to errors in policy execution."
Busch said that in response to the Connecticut attorney general's investigation, Best Buy placed a notice on its in-store site making clear that prices might not reflect what was available on the company's Internet website.
She added that store employees are trained to ensure that customers receive the prices they saw online.
To see for myself, I stopped by a Best Buy on L.A.'s Westside. I had no trouble finding one of the kiosks.
To access the in-store site, I had to click on a link marked "Bestbuy.com," which would seem to indicate pretty plainly that I was going to the company's website.
The in-store site was virtually indistinguishable from the actual website. Across the top were the same tabs linking to various product categories. There was also the same banner offering details for holiday deliveries.
The only significant difference was an inch-wide yellow strip sandwiched between the tabs and delivery notice that said, "This kiosk displays in-store prices -- which may differ from national Internet prices. Promotions can differ between stores and Internet. See your sales associate if you have questions."
The yellow strip disappears from view as soon as you scroll up the page.
Do most people understand that "national Internet prices" actually means prices available on Best Buy's own website? Do they understand that "Internet" promotions actually refer to sales on the real Bestbuy.com?
I put those questions to a Best Buy salesman.
"Every day we get at least one person asking why he can't find a price he saw online," the salesman replied.
I said I was looking for a DVD player I'd seen online that was selling for $71.99. I said it wasn't on the kiosk site.
"Here," the salesman said, "let me show you a secret."
He switched to a different screen, typed in his employee I.D. number, and the real Bestbuy.com came up. "Try now," the salesman said.
I asked why the real website wasn't available to everyone.
He shrugged. "I wish I knew."
Maybe that's something California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown should also be wondering.
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