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Clicks & Tricks

The Sneaky Side of Online Shopping

Brick-and-mortar retail stores are using more-sophisticated Web sites to drive up sales and attract younger customers. But online-shopping features and options offered by stores meant to make customers feel as if they have the upper hand, such as customer reviews, in-store pick up and live online sales clerks, also benefit the retailers just as much.

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Eric Hammer’s odyssey into the world of online sales trickery started in 2007 with a simple quest: He wanted to buy his father a notebook computer as a birthday present. He used the Internet and sales circulars to do his homework and found what he thought was an unbeatable price, even amid the crush of January sales. Bestbuy.com, the Web outlet of the giant consumer electronics chain Best Buy, was selling a Toshiba model for $730 that normally listed at $880.

Hammer wanted it right away; he drove to a Best Buy store in West Hartford, Conn., near to his home, to purchase the computer. When he arrived, however, he found the price was still $880. When he told the salesperson he’d seen it cheaper on the store’s Web site, the salesperson went to his computer, called up what appeared to be the Best Buy Web site, and, lo and behold, the price was $880 again.  

“I was just about ready to say forget it and pay for the darn thing and be done with it,” recalls Hammer, 49, a teacher and actor.

Instead, he decided to investigate further. At a second Best Buy that day, the story was the same. But at a Circuit City across the street, Hammer used a store computer to find the Bestbuy.com price for himself—$730.

“I said, ‘This is extremely odd,’” Hammer recalls. “They had the logo and the advertising the other site had. Everything was exactly the same except the prices.”

The Hartford Courant published a story about Hammer’s conundrum. In the weeks that followed, former store employees told the newspaper that what Hammer was shown was an intranet site. That site is an internal Web site used in Best Buy stores that sometimes shows customers higher prices for Best Buy products than the prices they would see on the company’s Internet site. In other words, Hammer nearly became a victim of the kind of deception by a brick-and-mortar retailer that wouldn’t have happened without the Internet.

Brick-and-mortar retailers are fond of saying that online shopping puts all the power in the hands of the consumer, because it places a full range of stores and products just a few mouse clicks and a FedEx visit away. But those stores are starting to turn the tables on consumers. A number of the newest online retailing techniques meant to make the consumer feel more empowered actually benefit the retailer just as much, if not more. At a time when shopping continues to shift from malls and stores to Web sites, consumers should understand that brick-and-mortar stores are looking for leverage online, too. 

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WEB OF DECEIT. All the bells and whistles touted as “consumer-friendly” features on the sites of these brick-and-mortar stores don’t necessarily mean shoppers get a better deal or pick a better product. Features and incentives, such as customer reviews, online coupons, buy-online-pick-up-in-store options and live online salesclerks, can benefit consumers, but they also can confuse, pressure, misdirect and even mislead shoppers. Even when these features and incentives are not actively hurting the consumer, they are, first and foremost, helping the retailer boost profits.

“In a perfect world, yes, the Web would give more transparency and more shopping power for the sophisticated buyer. But it also gives an opportunity for the retailer to pull the wool over the eyes of the consumers,” says George Gombossy, the consumer columnist for the Courant who exposed Best Buy’s double sites. “That doesn’t mean a sophisticated buyer can’t get a better deal than [without accessing a Web site]. But I think there’s more opportunity for the unsophisticated consumer to pay more than he needs to.”

Best Buy’s separate Web site to create a price switcheroo was the only blatant abuse we found by a brick-and-mortar store. It was flagrant enough for Connecticut’s attorney general to file a lawsuit against Best Buy for deceptive practices in May 2007. (The suit was pending at press time.) When we asked Best Buy about the allegations, a spokesperson for the company disputed Connecticut’s characterization with a nuance-loaded explanation that doesn’t satisfy us. “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,” Best Buy’s Dawn Bryant says.

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