Was Best Buy Diabolical Or Doddering?

With more than 90,000 employees, what was Best Buy thinking when it created two employee-accessible versions of its Web site that look exactly the same, except that each had different prices?

In any dramatic story—and this Best Buy dual-Web-site story is starting to become deliciously dramatic—there are good characters and bad characters. In a really good dramatic story, those good/bad distinctions are much more complex and they invariably are dependent on perspective, the reader's point of view.

With the Best Buy saga, the facts are starting to become clear. There is a little dispute that there are plenty of consumers "across the country" who have been tricked into thinking they were looking at the live Best Buy Web site when they were actually looking at a site showing only in-store pricing. It's also clear that Best Buy created two identically-appearing sites, both of which were intended to be used by employees to show to customers.

To use the common vernacular: consumers were ripped off. Lots of consumers. But was it fraud? And if so, by whom?

Did some or most of those employees—and/or their store managers—deliberately show the customers the wrong site, in an attempt to cheat them out of the price-guarantee lower cost? Or were they honestly confused—or ill-informed—and they were making honest mistakes?

That's "diabolical or doddering" issue one: What were the employees thinking when they showed the wrong site?

D or D issue two: Was this a conspiracy from corporate Best Buy? As much as I'd love to conclude that this was some corporate nefarious naughtiness, some Machiavellian marketing, I simply don't see any evidence of it.

More importantly, it doesn't make much sense. To execute such a plan, corporate would have to brief lots of managers to spread the sinister suggestions. It would only take a few of them to leave the company and leak the demos and the whole plan detonates. No, I simply don't buy the deliberate direct scenario.

But is it possible that the creation of two identically-appearing sites was an error because no one thought through what would likely happen as almost 90,000 hourly associates—with turnover rates roughly equivalent to the lifespan of a butterfly—tried to remember which was which?

The best that can be reached for is a very paranoid theory. Just like the old joke that "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that people aren't necessarily actually trying to get you," a paranoid theory isn't necessarily false just because it feels like it should nestled between the mafia assassinating JFK and UFO hostages at Roswell.

That paranoid theory would be that Best Buy officials were full well that confusion would likely result from two such sites and that such confusion would likely eliminate XX percent of price reductions "so let's decide to not focus on it." In other words, was a Best Buy exec playing the role of Blanche DuBois in A Web Site Named Desire: "I've come to rely on the inattentiveness of strangers."

As much as I'd love to believe that tale, I can't see it. First of all, the intra-store site—which Best Buy's Chap Achen (director, order management) insists is internally called "the Kiosk" (nefarious? Unlikely. Uncreative? Guilty as charged)—was launched at roughly the same time that Best Buy launched its Web site, which was quite a few years ago.

At that point, I doubt many Best Buy officials could have anticipated the multi-channel realities of today, nor the kinds of price-matching programs that such a scheme would be designed for.

So what's left? The frightening belief that no one honestly thought this scenario was possible.

This story broke because of a talented columnist for The Hartford Courant named George Gombossy. His reporting on the sites prompted the Connecticut Attorney General to launch his probe.

But Best Buy officials initially denied the intra-store site existed, Gombossy said, and it took law enforcement to get Best Buy's attention. Even when I spoke with Achen on Monday night, he was hesitant to pledge the site's appearance would change, only saying that one idea would be to add a new opening page that made the site's purpose more clear.

The problem with that is that if an employee wanted to be deceitful, he/she could simply not show the screen to the customer until that display went away. To make this work, the appearance of every page must be different (at-a-glance obvious difference) so that no consumer could be fooled, deliberately or inadvertently.

Beneath the surface of this tale are two smaller fires, which could easily become the biggest issue in a little while. First, Achen spoke of differential pricing on the Web site. Web customization is nothing new, but it must be handled very delicately. The idea that some customers—based on their history or profile—will be charged more for identical purchases has huge powder keg potential.

The second issue involves Best Buy's practice—being used, in varying ways, by several large retail chains—of setting up an IE browser, but limiting it to only Best Buy-controlled sites.

The goal of preventing consumers from surfing to child pornography sites is certainly laudable. But forgive me if I am inclined to think that they are much more concerned about consumers surfing to Google or a price-comparison site or a rival retailer. Efforts to limit that are simply going to fail. Smartphones—with their own Web access—will seal that fate. Trying to make sales by limiting the information available to consumers in the Web age is simply a suicidal strategy.

But getting back to the dual Web site problem, I like to think of myself as substance-oriented. (I also like to think of myself as rich and handsome and those aren't true, either.) In this instance, though, a surfacey appearance-only change is what's needed.

A new site design to make the intrastore program look like anything other than the corporate Web site should do the trick. To make this program go away, Best Buy, you just need to apply a good dose of new paint. Just make sure it's not whitewash.