The Connecticut Attorney Generals Office has launched a probe into the chains 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 telephone interview with eWEEK.com on March 3, 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 generals 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 from in-store prices. But the initial defenses offered by Best Buy—both to local media and to the Connecticut Attorney Generals Office—make no mention of this. If that were the case here, one would think it would be the first defense offered.
The Courant columnist, George Gombossy, told eWEEK.com that employees described to him their ability to access either the public Web site or the intrastore version, depending on what they wanted to do.
He published an account of his attempts to replicate the problems of one of his readers, in which he was indeed able to reproduce the apparent dual Web site bait-and-switch scheme, he said. He wrote that 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 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 BestBuy.com web site to ensure customers are receiving the best possible product price."
That line prompted Gombossy to try to 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 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," he said. "After making sure the computer is turned on, employees should click twice on the Yahoo Internet icon and then type in BestBuy.com."
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 competitors 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 March 3 cast doubt on that theory, with employees saying that they are only aware of the public version. (Gombossys 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 a 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 eWEEK.com will be watching closely.
Retail Center Editor Evan Schuman has tracked high-tech issues since 1987, has been opinionated long before that and doesnt plan to stop any time soon. He can be reached at Evan_Schuman@ziffdavis.com.
To read earlier retail technology opinion columns from Evan Schuman, please click here.