After months of investigation, the state of Connecticut sued Best Buy on Thursday and accused the chain of tricking customers with two identical-looking Web sites in its stores, the only difference being one had higher prices.
"Best Buy treated its customers like suckers, not patrons to be prized," said Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. "Best Buy gave consumers the worst deal: a bait-and-switch-plus scheme luring consumers into stores with promised online discounts, only to charge higher in-store prices."
"The company commonly kept two sets of prices—one on its Internet site and an often higher set on its in-store, look-alike, available on kiosks," Blumenthal said. "The in-store site was an Internet look-alike, commonly with higher prices, which were charged to consumers. Best Buy broke its promise to give the best price."
The Connecticut lawsuit (read the full text of the lawsuit) asks that Best Buy be ordered "to pay restitution to consumers who purchased products at a higher price because they were deceived by Best Buy's misrepresentations" in addition to paying civil penalties.
It's unclear how many Connecticut consumers were victimized in the scheme, but based on comments from Best Buy employees across the country, the scheme seems to been happening well outside of Connecticut. This raises the question of whether other states will attempt similar actions.
Best Buy officials initially said the deception was based on honest employee confusion. But with the details surrounding the case and how it was communicated, the intent of Best Buy executives is subject to interpretation.
On Thursday, Best Buy officials took a more aggressive stance. "Best Buy adamantly denies the Connecticut Attorney General's characterization of our in-store kiosks. We offered the in-store kiosks to provide our customers with another avenue for obtaining information about products and allow them the benefit of knowing exactly what was available at the store that the customer was presently in," said Susan Busch, the director of Best Buy's corporate public relations area.
Initially, Best Buy said the identical design was used for both sites to save on design and programming costs. On Thursday, Best Buy added that it designed to comfort—not confuse—their customers.
"We used the same Web site platform for these in-store kiosks as we did for our national Web site to ensure that customers familiar with the national Web site could easily navigate the in-store kiosk," Busch said, in a prepared statement. "Unfortunately, for all the benefits that the kiosks provided to most of our customers, there was a small percentage who did not receive the best price when they should have. Once this issue was brought to our attention, we provided immediate training for our employees to help ensure that all customers received the best price. We are in the process of making changes to eliminate future confusion."
She declined to take questions, only saying, "Further details about this matter must be saved for the courtroom. However, I can tell you that we intend to vigorously defend ourselves."
When the Connecticut Attorney General's office first started discussing their Best Buy probe, they said they wanted to give the chain the opportunity to stop the confusion. But, Blumenthal said, they didn't do nearly enough.
"In reaction to Connecticut's investigation, Best Buy in March added a banner to its in-store site reading 'This Kiosk Reflects Local Store Pricing,'" Blumenthal said. "The store's minor changes to its kiosks—made in response to my investigation—are inadequate and incomplete. The in-store kiosks are still mislabeled 'BestBuy.com,' falsely leading consumers to believe they are connecting to the Best Buy Internet Web site."