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Mary Starrett
February 13, 2003

I spent a few hours at Safeway this past Saturday, along with thousands of other Americans. Only difference is, I wasn't there to shop. I was protesting the use of customer "loyalty cards".

Our merry band was on a mission: to try and explain why those shiny, numbered cards do anything BUT save you money..(they don't , more on that in a minute).

The cards register you, and your purchases and keep track of them for a reason. Why it's just another marketing tool you say? Hardly. It costs roughly $30 million dollars to establish one of these card programs and an average $5 million per YEAR just to keep it going. Must be more to this than the desire to save you 40 cents on kitty litter.

I must admit I have a shiny, numbered card for just about every store that offers one. I thought I could beat their system by using a fake name and identifying information when I signed up.In fact the stores will often ENCOURAGE hesitant customers to use fake info... because they know something YOU don't know.

Say you sign up as Mickey Mouse at 1234-Main Street. You think they don't know it's really you.You get the super deals on toilet paper without having to give anything up, right? Wrong. The first time you use a check or credit card to pay for your purchases the connection is made. Ain't Mickey, but you, in their massive, honking database.

I didn't have a clue just how invasive this process was until I became aquainted with the work of founder Katherine Albrecht. She's one, smart, double-stuffed Oreo, that woman. Finishing up a Ph.D. at Harvard , she sounded the alert by forming a group called C.A.S.P.I.A.N. (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion And Numbering). Basically here's why I no longer play cards. First of all, the cards are supposed to save you money. They don't. C.A.S.P.I.A.N. studies show the overall "everyday' price of items cost 28-71% more AFTER card programs are implemented. So much for savings...As a matter of fact you're often not even saving on the special items hyped in the ads. So cards dubbed "advantage" cards are anything but. If you do not wish to have your purchases recorded you will have to pay a higher price (even though EVERYBODY's paying a higher price anyway, remember?)

And now that we've established there're no dollars and cents savings here (despite what the chirpy checker says as she circles the bottom number on your receipt), why else should you be leary of the cards?

Each purchase you make is recorded. The data has been used against people who are being chased by cops, disgruntled ex-wives, even the FBI. So you say there's nothing about your food purchases that could make you look bad ? Just know that once this information on you is collected, in our present climate just about ANYTHING you've purchased could be used to define you in any number of ways. The only way to make sure that doesn't happen is to make sure the data is never collected to begin with. Like many people, I have a whole stack of these cards. So much for "loyalty". If the object of this card game is to reward the loyal customers then why are so many people carrying so many cards they'll whip out depending on which store they're in?

The tracking part of this card game is creepy, but another proposed use of this data-mining scheme is downright disgusting. Did you know that according to Albrecht, industry suits have suggested I.D.'ing "undesireable" (read low income) shoppers (whose purchases don't add up to big enough profit for the stores?) In other words why have icky people who don't spend money on the right items wandering around the store taking up space?

Have you heard enough? Then why, (I always have to ask this question, even though you and I know the answer to it) don't media outlets pounce on this like scissors on double coupons? BECAUSE! Just follow the money with me for a sec: Newspapers are plastered with grocery chain ads.... many of the ads you see on TV are also for grocery stores. Pull the plug on that revenue and OUCH. ... And just think, with local TV, radio and print falling all over themselves for a piece of a shrinking ad money pie, you can bet your last bag of groceries no one's going to stir up trouble. The lady tells me ABC showed some interest in this whole issue but later backed out. I can just hear the chit-chat at 20/20 on that decision.

"But Rudy, this is a GREAT story!" "Sure John, then YOU deal with the affiliates when they call complaining that they've lost supermarket accounts over this"!

So that's why only a few stories have been done on this card game. The Wall Street Journal dipped a toe in the water a few months back, but never jumped in all the way.

The database that's being created can and will be used for everything from determining if you're a fit parent, to whether your insurance company has grounds to drop you because of the type of foods you eat, or whether you're a terrorist. That's why I don't play cards. I suggest you stop playing too. The next time you go shopping, don't go to the store holding a sign that says "Will be tracked for food". Tell the checker you want the card price and you have no intention of providing personal information to get it. When she says she can't do that, ask for the manager. Take your time, the other shoppers behind you might not appreciate your zeal, but smile and say you're doing this for their own good. Guaranteed you''ll get the card price and the manager will get the point. When this happens a few times they might actually get the message that YOU ARE NOT A NUMBER. Shop at stores without card programs and let the managers know how much you appreciate not having to play card games to eat.

2003 - Mary Starrett  All Rights Reserved


Mary Starrett was on television for 21 years as a news anchor, morning talk show host and medical reporter. For the last 5 years she hosted a radio program. Mary is a frequent guest on radio talk shows.  E-Mail