Cagey Consumer Privacy at the Grocery Store

Friday, January 8, 1999; Page A20

This article is reprinted without permission from the Washington Post under the fair use doctrine. © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

A couple of points about the "Shoppers' Privacy" article in the Dec. 31 Post [front page]:

First, it seems a bit inaccurate to call the lower prices "discounts." The supermarkets aren't "giving" me anything when I use their club cards; they just aren't jacking up their prices when I use the card. Big deal.

Second, all the concern for privacy misses a major point: There will always be someone -- governments, computer hackers, just plain criminals -- who will be able to find out all he wants to know about me no matter how many "privacy" laws get passed. What is needed are laws to ensure reciprocity. If a company can learn all about me, I should be just as able to learn all about it: Where did it get the data about me, what is it doing with it, who has access to the information, what do its executives buy at Safeway, etc.?

Companies should not be able to claim "competitive concerns" about revealing their use of the information they collect. Mutual accountability in an open society will be better in the long run than attempts at "secrecy" barriers, which mean that what the "big guys" do is secret from me but what I do isn't secret from them.


Fort Washington

I was struck by Assistant Commerce Secretary Larry Irving's statement that he provided false information to Safeway in return for a monetary benefit ["Bargains at a Price: Shoppers' Privacy"].

Some might consider that dishonest, even fraudulent, when the discount is clearly given for the right to obtain information about a specific shopper's buying habits.

Safeway shopper Lynn Erskine's refusal to dissemble was refreshing.



It occurred to me while reading the article about shoppers' privacy that one choice for the consumer (one which I will now begin to use) is to divide his order at the checkout counter. First, put all the items that don't have a discount on the counter; let the checker total the amount and pay for it. Then, let the clerk check out the discounted items. Let her have your card and pay for all the discounted items. That way all the information that the store has is your preferences for discounted items.


Barrington, Ill.

I have a suggestion. Get a Safeway card, and use it for routine grocery purchases only. If you prefer not to share such preferences as your tastes in tobacco, alcohol, pharmaceuticals, reading material, etc., ask the clerk to check these items separately (usually there is no discount on these types of item anyway) and pay cash. This will not only protect your privacy, but it will also mess up Big Brother's database, while allowing you to get your discount.



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