April 28, 1997 12:00 PM

INSTEAD OF A BIG-SCREEN TV, RON Kahlow’s entertainment center has a gaping 4-foot-by-4-foot void. It is a bitter reminder of events that have transformed Kahlow from comparative shopper into consumer crusader. “I wanted the best price,” he says. What he got was arrested.

The trouble began last July when Kahlow, 54, a partner in a Reston, Va., computer software company, slung a laptop around his waist and drove to the local Best Buy store to log in prices before checking out other stores. No sooner had he started prowling the aisles than salesmen for the electronics chain demanded he stop. Though he assured them he wasn’t the competition, he says salesmen blocked his path and ripped the tags off TVs he hadn’t already priced. Then, when Kahlow wouldn’t leave, the store manager called police, who handcuffed Kahlow and took him to Fairfax County Jail on trespassing charges. Released on bond and incredulous, Kahlow went back to Best Buy the next day, carrying only a pad and pencil. Apparently making the point that some customers are always wrong, the store had him arrested again.

A few weeks later, in county court, Best Buy accused Kahlow of interrupting sales. Unconvinced, Judge Donald McDonough dismissed the trespassing charges and warned the chain that if it wanted to bar shoppers like Kahlow, it had to post signs saying, in effect, no comparison shopping. Though he says Best Buy offered $10,000 and an apology, Kahlow is filing a $780,000 malicious prosecution and false arrest lawsuit against the 272-store chain. Kahlow, convinced he had right on his side, is in no mood to compromise. “Each time a man stands up for an ideal,” he says, quoting Robert Kennedy, “he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.” And does he have a less lofty message for retailers? Sure, says Kahlow, who has sworn off shopping entirely: “Darn it! Treat people decently.”

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