Best Buy Confirms It Has Secret Website
George Gombossy: Consumer Watchdog
March 2 2007
Under pressure from state investigators, Best Buy is now confirming my reporting that its stores have a secret intranet site that has been used to block some consumers from getting cheaper prices advertised on BestBuy.com.
Company spokesman Justin Barber, who in early February denied the existence of the internal website that could be accessed only by employees, says his company is "cooperating fully" with the state attorney general's investigation.
Barber insists that the company never intended to mislead customers.
State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal ordered the investigation into Best Buy's practices on Feb. 9 after my column disclosed the website and showed how employees at two Connecticut stores used it to deny customers a $150 discount on a computer advertised on BestBuy.com.
Blumenthal said Wednesday that Best Buy has also confirmed to his office the existence of the intranet site, but has so far failed to give clear answers about its purpose and use.
"Their responses seem to raise as many questions as they answer," Blumenthal said in an interview. "Their answers are less than crystal clear."
Based on what his office has learned, Blumenthal said, it appears the consumer has the burden of informing Best Buy sales people of the cheaper price listed on its Internet site, which he said "is troubling."
What is more troubling to me, and to some Best Buy customers, is that even when one informs a salesperson of the Internet price, customers have been shown the intranet site, which looks identical to the Internet site, but does not always show the lowest price.
Blumenthal said that because of the fuzzy responses from Best Buy, he has yet to figure out the real motivation behind the intranet site and whether sales people are encouraged to use it to cheat customers.
Although Best Buy also refused to talk with me on specifics of the intranet site or its use, it insisted that its policy is to give customers the best price.
"Our intention is to provide the best price to our customers which is why we have a price-match policy in place," the company said in a written statement to me. "As prices and offers may vary between retail and online, our stores will certainly match BestBuy.com pricing as long as it qualifies under the terms and conditions of the price match policy."
"As a company, everything we do revolves around our customers' needs and desires. It is never our intent to mislead them as their loyalty is incredibly important to us," the statement said.
Then they threw in this interesting line: "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 BestBuy.com web site to ensure customers are receiving the best possible product price."
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 BestBuy.com 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.
After making sure the computer is turned on, employees should click twice on the Yahoo Internet icon and then type in BestBuy.com.
This is not the first time the giant electronic retailer has gotten into trouble misleading customers. The firm, based in Minneapolis, operates more than 1,100 electronic retail stores in the U.S., Canada and China. It has more than 125,000 full-time employees.
Attorneys general in New Jersey and Ohio have accused Best Buy of deceptive sales practices, repackaging used merchandise and selling it as new, and failing to pay rebates and refunds. It paid $135,000 in New Jersey three years ago to settle that state's suit, which was based on hundreds of consumer complaints. The Ohio case is ongoing.