May 25, 2002
Grocery Club Cards, and those who hate them

An issue that has been receiving lots of press coverage here in Western Washington is the decision by supermarket chain QFC (a division of Kroger) to start tying their savings to a "frequent buyers" style card which tracks the holder's purchases. The idea is not new (I had a card from Ralph's in Southern California in the early 1990s) nor is it new to the northwest (Safeway already has a similar card here, as does at least one other local chain). But to judge from the outraged howls here, one would think that they are executing men, raping women, and selling children into slavery—I cannot believe the opposition to this card. It's positively surreal.

I don't like the cards, as a general rule. Von's (a California subsidiary of Safeway) used the purchase history of a customer to fend off a lawsuit—one of their customers slipped and fell in the store, and sued them. They discovered that he purchased lots of wine, and managed to convince the jury that he slipped because he was drunk. For that reason, I stopped shopping at Von's, and never got a card from them. But that was my choice, as was my choice to shop at Albertson's, because they didn't have a card. If they introduced a card (as they have done in the Dallas area), I would find another grocer to shop. That is my choice.

However, there is absolutely no requirement that a grocery store offer sale prices without some sort of tracking involved. If they wish to institute a policy, they do so knowing full well that they risk losing customers who feel as I do, that they are invasive. They do not require the cards to shop in the store (like clubs such as Sam's and Costco); they simply tie their sale prices to them. It's a quid pro quo—you agree to let them track your purchases, and they allow you to save money on said purchases. If you choose not to use their card, they don't give you a good deal on the food you buy. Fair enough.

The people here in Washington (particularly in the Seattle area) are acting like a bunch of whiny children over this issue, in general. The newspapers are in the thick of it—there have been news articles, columns, editorials, and a whole slew of letters to the editor, all in a furor over this tempest in a teacup. It's not the end of the world, folks. There are at least two other major chains in the area that don't use the cards, and hundreds of smaller independent grocers that don't use the cards and never will. Get over it.

posted on May 25, 2002 08:33 PM


I was at a party today, and we ran out of beer. A collection was taken and a fellow went to the nearest grocery store, which happened to be a QFC. The price difference between non card holders and card holders was $6 per 12 pack, so he signed up. He is Eddie Munster, of 1313 Mockingbird Lane, or so his card says.

posted by Frank Helderman on May 27, 2002 03:27 AM

I agree that the tracking so far is relatively benign.

However, the danger is that this sort of behavior will become the default... and that the consequence, from the customer who does not want his or her purchasing history plugged into a database, is that you must in effect, pay money to not be tracked.

If all the chains start to use the cards, you either pay indirectly, by going to a smaller (and probably higher-price) grocer, or directly, by refusing to benefit from sales in order to protect your privacy.

You imply that backlash discourages more grocers from using this scheme. But then you immediately rail against one manefestation of the backlash...

Contempt for people who don't want their buying habits tracked does not become you. How long until that data is for sale to other entities? Banner advertisers? Divorce investigators?

Law enforcement wouldn't need to pay... they'd just come in (with a warrant, I hope) and demand the info.

Combine that with profiling technology, and your local walmart can be scanned for potential 'subursives' based on their song-buying habits. History teaches us that if there is potential for abuse in the name of Order, someone's going to do it. The only salient question is weather it will be widespread.

Its the same old 'well if you want privacy you must have something to hide' attitude.

posted by Brian Wachs on May 28, 2002 02:32 PM

I thought I made it clear in my post that I am not particularly fond of the cards; I find them invasive, and will patronize stores that do not use them when possible.

What I am railing about is the astonishing amount of debate the cards have raised in Seattle, for no apparent reason. It's not a new idea, and QFC isn't the only store in town. There are a couple of major chains in the area that do not use the cards, so it's not an issue of "now everybody's doing it".

As to the ethics of the cards, I still mantain that it is the right of the company to tie their sale prices to the use of the card, just as it is the right of the consumer to shun the card (or the company). You refer to it as "paying to protect your privacy", but the converse is that companies are paying to acquire your information (by offering lower prices to card holders). One needs to decide if the lower prices outweigh the invasion of privacy, and choose accordingly.

I am not sure where you are headed with your post. Are you implying that the government should ban these cards? That seems to be the only solution to the proliferation of these cards, and much as I dislike the cards, I dislike the thought of another stupid law even more.

Every law, every technological innovation carries with it the potential for abuse. I, for one, do not wish to go back to the "good old days" because of a perceived loss of privacy. Yes, way too much of my personal life is catalogued by my bank, by my ISP, by my employer, by the IRS, and by other entities, both private and governmental. However, the technological breakthroughs that have made this cataloging possible have also resulted in more powerful computers, which lead to better medical care, safer vehicles, reduced pollution, and the like.

posted by scutum on May 28, 2002 04:18 PM

Scutum, I couldn't agree with you more. Safeway has had such a card in the Seattle area for years, and there was no comment. QFC introduces one, and people scream. It seems to me that the chattering classes of Seattle all live in Wallingford, Ballard, and Greenwood. Anything that affect those neighborhoods gets a lot of press, but they represent somewhere between 1/4 and less of the city's population. Safeway has very few stores in those neighborhoods, but they are dominant in South Seattle, which is about 1/2 the population of Seattle. Should you read the P-I, or the Times, you will often see reports of a crime or fire in South Seattle, but a similar crime or fire in North Seattle is identified by neighborhood. South Seattle is 1/2 (or more) of the surface area covered by the municipal boundaries. You may consign the whining over this issue along with the whining over Food World (Wallingford, featured in "Singles", and purchased by QFC), the grocery store at 35th NE and 85th NE (whose prior name I forget, but is now a QFC[there was a petition drive to stop the change of ownership]), and that over Art's (now a QFC) at about Holman Rd. NW and NW 8th.

posted by Frank Helderman on June 19, 2002 01:53 AM

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