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Is Best Buy Playing Web Games?

Not long ago, I bought an inexpensive DVD recorder at Best Buy. Being a careful consumer, I first checked the price of the unit I wanted on Best Buy's Web site -- but neglected to print out the page with the price on it. When I got to the store, I found that the unit I wanted cost about $10 more than I remembered. I was in a hurry, the line was long, and the clerk at the register was hassled -- so I let the matter drop. Now I'm sorry I did, because I might have been treated to a view of Best B
Not long ago, I bought an inexpensive DVD recorder at Best Buy. Being a careful consumer, I first checked the price of the unit I wanted on Best Buy's Web site -- but neglected to print out the page with the price on it. When I got to the store, I found that the unit I wanted cost about $10 more than I remembered. I was in a hurry, the line was long, and the clerk at the register was hassled -- so I let the matter drop. Now I'm sorry I did, because I might have been treated to a view of Best Buy's secret intranet.According to an article in the Hartford Courant, Best Buy has confirmed that it has an intranet site that looks the same as its public Web site -- except that some of the prices are higher. A customer told writer George Gombossy that when he went to a Best Buy store, and told a clerk that a product was priced for less on its Web site, he was shown the intranet site, which looked the same as the Web site, but had a different price for the product. In other words, the intranet is used to convince customers not to push for the prices they saw on the Web.

Sounds farfetched? Well, apparently not so farfetched that Connecticut State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal isn't looking into it.

If the story turns out to be true, what disturbs me isn't so much the fact that Best Buy may be trying to rook its customers -- I've always assumed that most major retail chains will occasionally try to pull a fast one, if they can get away with it -- but the blatant wrongness of it. A more accepted approach would have been simply to say (not without a grain of truth) that Web-based sales were only available on the Web because they cost the company less to sell and ship. Or there is that old, tried-and-true strategy of specifying that the sale price is only available on the second Tuesday of the month between the hours of 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. for people who buy at least $500 of other merchandise. Either method wouldn't have raised an eyebrow.

But to create a fake Web site and use it to prevent in-store customers from paying prices they found on the company's real site is just tacky. It's like an episode out of the TV show Hustle -- except that the con artists on Hustle have more class.

Perhaps it will turn out that this whole story is a misunderstanding, or the doing of a few Connecticut store managers who, in their eagerness to rise in their profession, played a bit of now-you-see-it-now-you-don't with the company's Web site. Or perhaps this will become a major scandal that will throw Best Buy into the PR doghouse. Either way, the story does serve to remind us that, online and off, consumers have to keep their eyes open -- and not be shy about challenging retailers when something seems to be wrong.