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Bait and switch? Not us, says Best Buy

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Best Buy is to "vigorously defend" a lawsuit filed by the state of Connecticut, accusing the US company of bait and switch tactics to deceive and overcharge customers.

The dispute resolves around Best Buy's in-store kiosks. These let customers see what is available in the store and their interface is identical in look and feel to Best Buy's website. But, according to Connecticut A-G Richard Blumenthal, the kiosks list in-store prices instead of cheaper online prices.

In a press release issued last week, Connecticut alleges: "Since 2005, the company's stores have pledged to match any lower online price, including from their own Internet site. Many Best Buy salespeople falsely told consumers searching for or seeking to confirm lower online prices that the kiosk connected them to BestBuy.com. When the site displayed the higher in-store price, salespeople allegedly suggested that consumers, who thought they were viewing BestBuy.com, previously misread the lower online price or the online price had expired.

"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," Blumenthal said. "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.

"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 - an Internet version of bait-and-switch - a technological bait-and-switch-plus. Best Buy used in-store kiosks to conceal lower online prices and renege on its price match guarantee. Consumers seeking bargains were led to believe that lower online prices had expired or never existed. Best Buy treated its customers like suckers, not patrons to be prized."

Blumenthal notes that 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". But this is still deceptive, he says: "The kiosk's appearance remains virtually identical to BestBuy.com; customers still access information by clicking a tab marked "BestBuy.com." Connecticut is seeking restitution for consumers and civil penalties.

Best Buy has come out fighting. Here is what it has to say for itself:

"We used the same web site platform for these in-store kiosks as we did for our national web site – we did this to ensure that customers familiar with the national web site could easily navigate the in-store kiosk. 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. Further details about this matter must be saved for courtroom; however, we can tell you that we intend to vigorously defend ourselves."

Expect a settlement in '08 or '09. ®

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