Employees, Customers Say Best Buys Goal Was to Confuse

News Analysis: Some former and current Best Buy employees suggest that the company may have intentionally misled customers about pricing.

As Connecticut state investigators continue to look into the Best Buy dual Web site situation, former Best Buy employees and customers are telling stories that question how accidental some of the confusion was.

The controversy stems from Best Buy giving employees access to two different—but visually identical—sites for them to show customers. One of the sites was the public Web site and the other was a full replica of that site but with in-store (typically higher) pricing.

The question of intent behind the confusion of the two sites is crucial to the investigation being conducted by the Connecticut Attorney Generals Office, according to a law enforcement source within that department. Were the two sites created as legitimate tools for store associates and the confusion merely a result of insufficient training or was there a deliberate attempt to perpetrate a fraud on the public?

The question of fraud comes into play if Best Buy intended that its employees would show the intrastore site to customers and tell them that it was the public Web site, in order to avoid having to honor Best Buys price-matching policy. Best Buys policy is that it will match the price of any BestBuy.com sale unless its labeled a Web-only deal.P>

Best Buy officially has said that the internal site and the public Web site were both launched many years ago and that, at the time of launch, it made sense to have them look identical to save on design costs. Those executives argue that any confusion of the two sites—either in the eyes of customers or employees—is unintentional and there was never any intent to deceive.

Several Best Buy employees, former employees and Best Buy customers—most of whom asked that they not be quoted by name—said communications inside Best Buy stores were clearly very different.

The first hint of intent comes from the intrastore site appearing on employee screens simply labeled "BestBuy.com," according to four sources. If the site was indeed designed to show in-store—as opposed to online—pricing—as opposed to the pricing on the public BestBuy.com Web site, wouldnt it have been labeled in a way to reflect that?

The stories that most current and former Best Buy employees spoke of Best Buy senior store managers being aware of the two sites and their purposes, but that this information was typically not shared with rank-and-file employees. Its not as though they were told that the intra-store site was identical to the public Web site, but the lack of information—coupled with the sites name—prompted them to assume it was the public site.

/zimages/1/28571.gifWas Best Buy diabolical or doddering? Click here to read more.

What makes this case so challenging is that if frauds and deceptions happened, they were designed to happen in a way that makes it quite difficult to have done so in a way that makes it very hard to prove and potentially even harder to hold anyone civilly or criminally responsible to prosecute any one individual.

The chain having multiple prices is not the issue and, indeed, is a common and accepted practice. Certainly having a system inside the store—a kiosk—that shows employees and/or customers the store (as opposed to the Web) pricing is also not a problem.

The problem occurs when a customer is told that they are being shown the public Web site when in reality they are being shown an intrastore site and that this misrepresentation causes them to pay a higher price because they are not given the price-matched discount.< Were the misrepresentations regarding the intrastore site intentional? And if so, who is responsible?

Next Page: Criminal intent?