Safeway’s Latest Gimmick: Enough, Already?

The Times takes note today of Safeway’s latest scheme to make customers think they’re getting bargains, thereby inducing them to buy more junk. The stores here in town have been pestering customers for months, trying to get us to sign up for this “program,” which creepily tracks your buying history through the red loyalty card and pitches products to you by offering alleged discounts on things it thinks you’re likely to buy. Cutely called “Just for U,” the program makes you cough up your e-mail address so the corporation can send you digitized coupons, which are loaded onto your red card. Discounts offered to you are based on your shopping habits, which Safeway has tracked and analyzed through your use of the red card.

The website where you go to sign up for this thing is short on information about exactly what it is and how you use it, for the obvious reason that there are some things you’re better off (from Safeway’s point of view) not knowing. Evidently they want you to sign up without thinking too hard about it.

These tracking programs, into which consumers are lured by purported discounts (i.e., those who don’t have a loyalty card pay more than the normal retail price, while those who agree to carry one around and let the corporation track their every purchase pay a fair price), are highly invasive. Corporations don’t want to “offer” you a loving blandishment; they want to sell you stuff, and they’ve learned they can manipulate you by spying on you and analyzing your buying habits. Retailers, for example, would  love to know when you divorce, because you’re more likely to start buying a different brand of beer then, or to purchase whole new sets of trash baskets and kitchen utensils.

This strategy has already had some not altogether benign results. One father, for example, was surprised to learn his high-school-age daughter was pregnant when Target, having divined the fact by what she bought, started mailing her coupons for baby clothes and cribs.

Target is so secretive about its snooping program that when a Times reporter looking into it sent the company’s PR people a prepublication summary of his reporting, he was told every statement was inaccurate, but they would not address any part of the reporting to enlighten him. When he tried to make an appointment to discuss the alleged inaccuracies, they refused to meet with him. When he went in person to Target’s corporate headquarters, he was told he was on a list  of prohibited visitors.

What, really, do they not want you to know about what they know about you? That question alone should tell us something.

Besides the obvious invasion of privacy, there are other reasons to object to favored-customer plans:

1. They’re elitist. You have to own a computer and, for best results you need a smart phone. Not everyone can afford a smart phone, and some people aren’t too clever with computers, either.

2. They add another layer of nuisance to shopping, an already onerous proposition: now you have to go online to check the day’s offers before you head out the door for another trudge through the stores, where you will have to check and bag your own purchases.

3. They’re budget-busters: they lure you to buy products you don’t really need. Today’s Times piece describes a Maryland woman who chose to buy a large bottle of cranberry juice rather than the smaller bottle of cran-apple juice she normally buys and to pick up a package of “discounted” Cocoa Puffs. (Yech! Is there any question why the average American consumes 156 pounds of sugar a year?)

4. Information about your private habits can be used against you just as easily as it can be used to offer you a glowing “bargain” on junk food you shouldn’t waste your money on. This data, folks, can be subpoenaed and, more to the point, it can be sold. The government isn’t allowed to invade your privacy without good reason and a court order, but we allow huge corporations to do so, and those corporations have no limits on who they can sell that information to. Your private habits not only can reveal whether you’re a pregnant 16-year-old, they also can show whether you’ve taken up your old smoking habit again, what and how much you drink, whether you eat a healthy diet or whether you favor Cocoa Puffs and sugary “juice,” whether and how often you buy prescription or OTC medications for ailments like migraines and GERD.

This information can be used against you. Do you really want your soon-to-be ex-spouse’s lawyer to get her hands on records of how much alcohol you buy or whether you buy condoms or birth control pills your spouse doesn’t ever see you use? Do you really want an insurance company to learn, secretly, about your drinking and smoking habits, or about aches and pains that could mean higher premiums or outright denial of coverage?

5. It’s fundamentally unfair to offer one person a lower price because she doesn’t know better than to allow a corporation to track her every move or because she can afford a smart phone and a computer. By its nature, then, Safeway’s favored customer scheme disadvantages the poor, the laid-off, the cautious, and the elderly.

6. They jack up prices all the way across the board. You don’t really believe Safeway is giving away stuff to everybody who consents to being spied on, do you? In fact what’s happening is all the prices in the store go up, and the so-called discounts are mark-downs off inflated prices.

Personally, I would like to see legislation prohibiting retailers from collecting, storing, or analyzing individual consumers’ purchases and shopping habits. In our present political climate, where elected leaders are purchased by well-heeled corporate interests, of course that’s never going to happen.

Welp, in my case I can’t very well take advantage of Safeway’s new spying digital coupon program, because my red card was taken out in the name of my now deceased German shepherd, and the phone number was that of the local Safeway headquarters. I got the number out of a telephone book—it was that long ago!—and I don’t even own a phone book anymore. It’s unlikely that the CIA Safeway publicizes the number of its local corporate offices on the Internet.

So. It’s a good reason to buy local. It’s a good reason to shop at stores that don’t demand you carry a card around or sign up at an online spy shop, even if you have to pay more for the privilege. It’s a good reason to grow your tobacco in the backyard.

Images:

Safeway before Opening. Mattie B from Santa Cruz. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
Tobacco in blossom.  kevinbercaw. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

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frugalscholar August 11, 2012 at 8:36 am

I don’t know. I think more about me is known by THE MAN when I look at blogs and news sites. I’m certainly exposed to more advertising.

funny August 11, 2012 at 8:40 am

@ frugalscholar: The Man, tho’, is also private industry, especially Google — again, operating without the privacy constraints we put on elected officials and government employees.

And it’s absolutely true that Google knows far more about you than Safeway ever will…unless Safeway wises up and starts buying data from Google, which, once it has your name, address, and e-mail address, it certainly could.

I like to insert a little disinformation in Google’s search tracking by making up insane search terms and, before every bathroom and snack break, clicking on sites in which I have zero interest.

jesinalbuquerque August 11, 2012 at 8:53 am

The power of big companies is frightening, both the powers they use on customers and the power they wield in government. And it’s getting worse all the time, as they are pampered and cosseted as ‘job creators.’ It’s bad news.

Deedee August 11, 2012 at 5:08 pm

Well, I signed up for the new Safeway dealy and my main gripe is that when I look at the email they send with the week’s deals the top deal is “$10.00 off your purchase of $50 or more!!” So I click on that square and it takes me to a sign-in page and after I sign in that $10 off deal is not to be found anywhere! I eventually find it after wading through pages and pages of crap, promotions, coupons, etc. So I am over this Safeway card thing. And I am also a bit bothered by the privacy issue. I think I don’t care if what I buy is public knowledge since I think my purchases are pretty boring, but in principle I guess I do kind of care. We do have a great local market here that actually sells a lot of local produce, meat, honey and dairy products. No cards, no shady deals. I mostly shop there. I think I spend a bit more money-wise, but stress-wise it is a much better deal!

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