At Best Buy, an Arresting Price Policy|
By Peter Finn Washington Post Staff Writer Friday, February 28, 1997;
There are comparison shoppers.
And then there's Ronald Kahlow.
Kahlow, 54, wanted a TV set. So he created a program on his laptop
computer that would let him record the model number and price of every
television in a string of stores near his Reston home.
First stop: Best Buy.
And that's where things started to get, um, bizarre. Kahlow, a computer
jock who owns a small software company, was arrested twice and led away
in handcuffs when he refused to stop recording TV prices. In court, he
read a poem by Robert F. Kennedy to the judge, who declared him not
guilty of trespass. The judge, Donald P. McDonough, compared Kahlow to
the civil rights demonstrators of the 1960s.
Now Kahlow is suing Best Buy for $90,000.
All for a good deal on a TV.
Best Buy officials said the company, which is based in Minneapolis, has
an unwritten policy not to allow anyone to record prices in its
"For competitive reasons, we ask that pricing not be written down,"
said spokeswoman Laurie Bauer. "It's a disruption of other customers.
[The policy is] so other customers will not feel threatened or
Bauer declined to discuss either the trespassing case brought against
Kahlow or his civil suit.
It all started in July. Looking like a gunslinger with a laptop, Kahlow
sauntered into Best Buy in Reston with his computer strapped around his
waist. He said he was leaning toward a big screen model but was
pricing everything. Kahlow said he was keying in the information when
store employees asked him to stop. Kahlow said he explained what he was
doing and refused to stop.
According to court testimony, Best Buy employees stood in front of
Kahlow and pulled the tags off every television he had not yet priced.
The store also called the police, who asked Kahlow to leave. He refused
and was arrested on a trespassing charge.
The next day, Kahlow came backarmed with pad and paper.
He started taking down prices again. The police were called again.
Kahlow was arrested again.
"I felt very intimidated," Kahlow said. "Each step of the way, I felt
more and more furious. I mean, come on, I'm a consumer. I was totally
in the right. When something is plumb wrong, you have to stand up."
Retail analyst Ken Gassman, who secretly records prices all the time to
compare different companies, said some stores do throw out professional
shoppersif they can detect them. But, Gassman said, Best Buy's
competitors and price analysts such as him never would be as obvious as
"Is Best Buy out of its mind?" asked Gassman, of Davenport and Co., a
brokerage house in Richmond. "This is so anti-consumer, it's
unbelievable. And it raises the question about whether they are the
lowest priced. . . . If you call yourself Best Buy and you are the best
buy, then why would you worry about comparison shopping?"
One of Best Buy's main competitors said it doesn't proscribe comparison
shopping. "As long as someone is not disruptive, we have no policy"
against it, said Morgan Stewart, a spokesman for Richmond-based Circuit
It isn't the only one. "Customers can come in and take down any price
they want," said Brian Dowling, a spokesman for Safeway Stores Inc.
"In fact, it's something our customers and our competitors do all the
"Someone wants to price, we tell them to enjoy themselves," said Barry
Scher, a spokesman for Giant Food Inc.
After his arrest, Kahlow said he priced TVs at several other
electronics retailers, including Circuit City. In each instance, he
said, he was asked what he was doing but was allowed to continue when
he explained he was comparing prices before deciding where to buy a
A month after his misadventure at Best Buy, Kahlow stood before
McDonough in Fairfax County General District Court.
Best Buy argued that Kahlow was interrupting other sales.
The judge, in full rhetorical flower, disagreed.
"I come from a period in which civil disobedience was a method of
life," McDonough said to Kahlow. "I view this period with immense
pride. . . . It was extraordinarily helpful in [the] overall growth of
our nationbecause people did things like you did."
Kahlow recorded the hearing in General District Court, and McDonough
confirmed the accuracy of his own remarks.
Kahlow, not to be outdone by McDonough's flourish, recited "Ripple of
Hope," which was written by Robert F. Kennedy in 1966:
"Each time a man stands up for an ideal Or acts to improve the lot of
others Or strikes out against injustice He sends forth a tiny ripple of
The judge, moved, said, "Never has the cause of comparative shopping
been so eloquently advanced."
McDonough then turned to Best Buy's representative and said, "I know of
no law that says you cannot take down priceswhether you are taking down
on a computer or you are taking them down on a pad of paper, which I
do. . . . Now if Best Buy wishes to do so, they certainly may post a
banner saying that comparative shopping is not permissible."
Bauer, of Best Buy, declined to comment on the judge's remarks.
After Kahlow was found not guilty, he filed a civil suit in Fairfax
County against Best Buy seeking $90,000 in damages. He said that he
offered to settle for $3,000 in legal costs, an apology from Best Buy
and a declaration that it is all right to record prices but that he
never heard back from the company.
Kahlow and the company are due back in court Tuesday for a meeting
about the suit.
Meanwhile, the space in Kahlow's Reston home where he planned to put
his new TV still stands empty.
"I got so ticked off, I never bought one," he said.
Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company