The 'Shopping Card' Racket

How much personal info does a store really need to sell you groceries?

| March-April 2000

I once remarked that I didn’t much care for what I saw as a historic ideological suffusion in the local food co-op, so I preferred buying my groceries at Safeway. At least it was a standard capitalist-bastard enterprise that didn’t try to treat me as anything but an anonymous customer—which is exactly what I want to be.

But all at once, about a year ago, every worker in the store was my long-lost pal, greeting me with mind-numbing enthusiasm. They were on me like leeches, joyful with the empty, eerie camaraderie of an evangelical sect, constantly at my elbow wanting to know if I was “finding everything okay.” When you’ve just grabbed a can of soup or a loaf of bread off a shelf and a deeply interested employee races over to stare fixedly in your eyes and interrogate you for the eighth time in two minutes about whether you were indeed able to locate the package of food you are at that second clutching—well, it does make you wonder.

To be frank, I was actually worried that they might suspect I was a shoplifter. This reaction probably says something about my personality, since I had happened to notice an article about the reactions of others to this corporate campaign (as it turned out to be). Apparently a lot of men were convinced the behavior was sexual interest, flirtation, so they were trying to make dates with the female store workers. Me, I figured they had me pegged as a suspicious character, and any moment I expected someone to lower the boom.

“Corporate campaign” or not, the store had taken on disconcerting religio-Halloween vibes, and I was about to take my trade elsewhere when the other shoe dropped.

Clipboards in hand, dozens of store employees began patrolling the shopping aisles, canvassing people waiting to check out—even lunging from corners as they tried to slip out the door, or lying in wait for them in the parking lot. The canvassers beseeched, demanded, insisted that I sign up for a new “shopping card,” and they all but claimed I wouldn’t be permitted to buy groceries there unless I complied. I’d just need to provide my name, address, phone number, date of birth. I’m not sure whether they wanted my Social Security number, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they had, and my full medical records, too. Just to buy groceries at Safeway.

I kept refusing, they kept insisting, and the last couple of times I shopped there the cashier waved the receipt at me before handing it over and lamented, “If you had gotten one of our cards, you’d have saved $2.56!” It was, in other words, a legal way to punitively discriminate against someone—me. While huge sections of law are designed to make sure that nobody looks cross-eyed at any adherent of any screwy cult that “worships” by twisting the heads off live chickens, my own profound moral/philosophical objection to an invasive practice is just S.O.L.

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