The lobby: Best Buy

best_buy.gi.top.jpgBy Jia Lynn Yang, writer


(Fortune) -- Name any major U.S. company, and chances are good it runs an office in Washington. They're all here to lobby, yes, but more specifically, they're watching the Hill, the White House, and regulators for any policymaking that could affect their businesses. In a new regular feature, Fortune.com will introduce you to one of these offices. We'll talk to the head lobbyist for that company and find out what policies they're pushing the hardest in Washington. We'll also talk to industry groups to see what's on their radar.

Best Buy's focus on Washington is relatively new. The electronics chain retailer didn't have a government relations department until eight years ago. And only a few months ago did Best Buy (BBY, Fortune 500) hire its first in-house lobbyist based solely in Washington. (Before, the company's policy experts were shuttling between the company's Minneapolis headquarters and the capital.) Given the number of issues affecting it, the retailer decided it was time to be in Washington on a daily basis.

Paula Prahl, Best Buy's senior vice president of communications, public affairs and corporate responsibility, is responsible for briefing CEO Brian Dunn and the company's board of directors on public policy priorities.

On Washington issues, she works closely with Laura Bishop, who was hired in 2003 to build a government relations department, and Parker Brugge, Best Buy's new government relations director in DC. The company also works with a team of consultants. Prahl talked with Fortune.com about what's most important to Best Buy in Washington right now.

Broadband Access

More users connected to the Internet means more customers for Best Buy. "We see ourselves as a ubiquitous brand offering of all sorts of things that let people connect to broadband," says Prahl.

It's no surprise then that the company supports the National Broad Plan recently unveiled by the Federal Communications Commission. In particular Best Buy likes the FCC's goal of bringing fast Internet to underserved parts of the country.

The company also sees a chance here to work closely with the FCC to implement the policy, which the company has done in the past. During the digital television transition, the FCC contracted Best Buy's Geek Squad to provide free service in 31 states for people who needed help making the conversion. Prahl sees similar chances to collaborate on the National Broadband Plan.

Recycling

Right now 20 states have laws governing electronics retailing, and they're all different. Following all these rules gets confusing for Best Buy, which runs recycling programs in all 50 states. The solution, says Prahl, is a federal bill that would bring some uniformity to the system.

Prahl says legislation is necessary to achieve widespread electronics recycling, since the cost of collecting an item, transporting it, and breaking it apart often exceeds how much a company can get selling its parts. A refrigerator often pays for itself because it's easier to disassemble and the steel from its body has value on the market.

But electronics can be another story. A laptop, for instance, requires far more labor to pull apart. The federal government could encourage manufacturers to design their products to make recycling easier down the road.

No bill related to electronics recycling has been introduced yet during this Congress, although there has been interest in past years in both the House and Senate.

Sales Taxes

Best Buy currently faces a disadvantage against online retailers that don't collect sales taxes. According to the current rules as long as a retailer doesn't have a physical presence in the state where a customer's shopping, the company doesn't charge a sales tax on the final bill. Amazon.com (AMZN, Fortune 500) customers, except in a few states, know this fact well. In theory, the shopper is supposed to file a state income tax. (Of course people rarely do this.)

Brick and mortar retailers like Best Buy want to close this loophole, and together with state legislators and some small businesses, they've banded together to form a group called the Main Street Fairness Initiative.

Prahl says the issue is even more significant now given how many states are struggling fiscally. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., have expressed interest in taxing e-tailers, but no bill has been introduced in either the House or Senate yet.

--An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Best Buy hired Laura Bishop in 1993. She was hired in 2003. To top of page