Another big box electronics store is facing accusations of lying to customers to try to reel in business. Office Depot "encouraged" its associates to deceive potential purchasers about pricing, an investigation by Laptop Magazine asserts.
This isn't the first instance of a brick-and-mortar chain coming under fire for questionable tactics. With CompUSA's partial closure and Circuit City's recent demise, it begs the question: Why don't these places start shaping up before they all earn headstones in the electronics graveyard?
Office Depot Allegations
The latest allegations, sourced to several current and former Office Depot employees, claim the company has widely told its workers to do things such as adding optional service plans onto clearance items without telling customers. One source says associates would accomplish this by altering pricetags in Photoshop to make the base price look a hundred dollars higher, thereby giving the store the credit for selling the add-on without the customer even knowing.
"My boss says, ‘You have to do whatever it takes to get this price in it,'" an employee identified as Alex tells Laptop. "I go to Photoshop, do it -- he comes in and says, ‘That's beautiful. I love it. Do it to all the other ones.'"
Even without the Photoshop trick, the associate claims it has been a common practice to increase "clearance item" prices so that extended warranties are quietly included in the costs. Laptop's investigation suggests the practice has extended across at least five states.
If it's all true, this is pretty disheartening -- but it shouldn't necessarily come as a total surprise.
It was only two years ago that Best Buy found itself on the receiving end of an attorney general's lawsuit. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said the store maintained a separate internal version of its Web site that was "virtually identical" to BestBuy.com -- except that its prices were all higher. That would mean a customer trying to get a price match from what they found online would suddenly see a different price when an employee pulled up the page inside the store.
"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 at the time. "Best Buy used [the] in-store kiosks to conceal lower online prices and renege on its price match guarantee."
While Best Buy denied any wrongdoing at the time, about seven months later -- in December of 2007 -- a fresh set of customers came forward with the same accusations. An L.A. Times reporter even confirmed the differing prices on the sites for himself.
I wish the issues ended there. But, while other instances may not have been quite so extreme, the banner-name chains have seen more than their shares of complaints about shoddy customer service and unfair pushing of overpriced and unnecessary add-ons.
A 2007 PC World investigation by Senior Writer Tom Spring found both Circuit City and Best Buy relentlessly tried to talk customers into buying store-made recovery discs with new laptops. Employees at three out of five Best Buys Spring visited went as far as to tell him he couldn't make the discs on his own and needed to pay the $30 if he wanted to have them.
Spring later created the discs in his office in about an hour's time. The laptop's manual even had instructions. Best Buy responded by saying that the experience may have been the "result of miscommunication" and that the store-made discs were offered only as a "convenience to customers."
Wake Up, Retailers
There's always an explanation, but the fact remains that it's become more and more challenging to have a good experience at big box electronics store. In upgrading my own PC just recently, I tried going to the local CompUSA to pick up a few parts so I could have them in my hands that night. After a salesperson literally walked away while I was talking to him, I walked out, went home, and ordered the components online.
It pains me to see chains like Circuit City shutting their doors. Despite the ease of online shopping, there's a clear value to being able to visit a physical location, view the physical device you're purchasing, and -- theoretically, at least -- chat with a knowledgeable professional about your options.
The fact is, though, the brick-and-mortar chains don't have a monopoly on the market anymore. Plenty of people would just as soon point, click, and get their items shipped without having to get into their cars. If electronics retailers want to avoid going the way of the 5.25" floppy drive, they need to play to their strengths -- honest and attentive customer interaction -- or, before you know it, Circuit City is going to have a lot of company in its final resting place.