Wednesday, November 02, 2005

It's becoming "trendy"...

...for many retailers to hand out a magnetic stripped, plastic
"discount card" for use in their establishments. The businesses call them
"Rewards cards", "Plus Cards", "Bonus cards", or "Loyalty cards". I call them
a privacy invading nuisance.
My local grocer uses such a card and made it essential for the shopper to
sign up for one. The card found a home in my wallet, right next to my driver's
license, my credit card, and my bankcard. Now the gas station down the street
has their version of this card. So does the butcher, the baker, and candlestick
maker. Shheeeesh, my wallet is getting thicker by the hour.
I went to lunch the other day and the cashier's first question was, "Do you have
your Biggie Burrito card today?"
"I seem to have forgotten it", I admitted, almost ashamed of my lack of planning.
"Too bad!", the cashier lamented. "Your drink would have been free with it today."
She was almost scolding me!
At the grocery store, signs touting the advantage of being a "Plus Shopper" are
everywhere. Items are advertised as "10 for $10" or "4 for $4" on every shelf. At
the checkout, you scan the card, scan the items, and the price is adjusted accordingly.
What's going on behind the scenes seems a whole lot more sinister.
Most people forget that they filled out an "application" for their card when they got
it. It asked for detailed information and I seriously doubt that the majority of shoppers
ever questioned why a grocery store would ever need information like that. They just
answered the questions, turned the application in, got the card, and went along their
merry way. This is especially true of the older shoppers.
It is called "Information Gathering". Someone entered all the information you
so generously provided into a database and the grocer now has it saved. And they
are using it. They know your address, quite possibly your phone number, your account
number, the day you shop, the time you shop, what you buy, and how you pay. It is
privacy invasion, pure and simple, and you agreed to it.
Honestly, the system has some merit and benefit to the consumer. It helps to control
inventories and in selling the freshest product possible. It helps in having the right number of
employees ready to serve you during the busiest hours. However, any such "Plus" or
"Bonus" program is designed to benefit the retailer, not the consumer. Furthermore, it is
the use of the gathered information that concerns me the most. For the sake of example,
let's say that on August 23, I purchased a Walt Disney, "Tarzan II" DVD because it was
on sale. A month later, my mailbox is being filled with junk mail containing offers from
Colombia House Records, every local or national video rental store, video
game specialty stores, and more. At the same time, my phone is ringing off the hook with
telemarketing calls from travel agencies wanting to offer me discount rates to DisneyWorld
in Florida. I thought that I signed up for the "do not call" list! Guess again! When I signed
up for that "Plus" card, my signature gave the grocer the right to sell my information
to other associated retailers and vendors. I signed away my right to privacy and my right
to eat dinner undisturbed in a single stroke of the pen.
I didn't sign up for a card at the gas station and don't intend to. "Do you have your
rewards card?", the cashier asks when I make a purchase. "You can save 2 cents per
gallon on gas right now!", she chirps. It confirms my suspicion that their gasoline, like most
of the products they sell, is overpriced. Down the street I pay 20 cents less per gallon and
keep my private information private.