Who is Loyal to Whom? – Retail Loyalty Cards and American Privacy

I am privacy wonk. I do not like faceless people peering into my life anymore than I like peeping Tom’s peering into my windows. People who peek give me the creeps. They are the cockroaches in the walls of our lives. I am also a copyright wonk. I own everything I think up, whether it is has immediate value or not. I own the copyright to my books, my blog, my habits and attitudes as well as my shopping list. Anyone who copies my shopping list or my e-mails or my anything without my express permission has both violated my privacy and the copyright of my life. By virtue of my birth, I own the patent and copyright to my genetic material. Its value does not matter – it is not for the taking without my permission.

There was a time, not too long ago, where this discussion was not relevant. It was not possible for Corporate America and Big Government to record our every word, movement and purchase. No one could use our DNA for anything interesting. That time has come to an end. Today, through the unethical use of rapidly emerging technologies, corporations across the globe are copying and tabulating who we are for their own personal gain without our express permission or any compensation. What should be a seller’s market, where I set the price for my goods just like I set the price for my books, has become a thieves market where Big Business simply takes what they want… and then discriminates against consumers who have the unmitigated gall to try to protect their private information.

I live in a cookie-cutter copy of Every Town, USA. I have the same strip malls with the same chain restaurants and chain retailers that dominate the American shopping experience from sea to shining sea. I can divide these retailers into two rough groups. Those who require customers to sign up for a customer loyalty card in order to get advertised prices, and those who will honor their best price without discrimination of any sort. The goods and services they all sell are the same. They sell the same brands names from the same manufacturers. The everyday prices and advertised sales are generally similar, and there is not a discernible difference in quality of service. If anything, the everyday prices are higher and the service is worse at shops that require loyalty cards. The only real difference between the two groups is that one steals a copy of your shopping list, tabulates your purchasing habits, and attempts to create a hidden revenue stream using the copyright of your life without your permission and without compensating you, while the other offers you the same goods and services at the equal or better prices without spying on you and stealing from you. It is ironic that the companies demanding loyalty are in fact betraying their customers, while the ones who do not demand loyalty are actually demonstrating that very virtue.

Obviously, I do not use loyalty cards, but the average American consumer has eight. The only time I shop at businesses that require loyalty cards is when time and convenience outweigh the ensuing fight. Last month I was in such a situation. I was traveling out of town and needed fuel and a drink, and was not willing to drive out of my way to find it. I stopped at a major national grocery chain with a gas station in their parking lot and went in to get a soda and a snack. I picked out a couple of sale items and went to the register.

“I am not a Club Card member, but I want you to honor your advertised price,” I told the cashier. I was friendly, but firm.

“If you are not a Club Card member, I am not going to do that!” he was just as friendly and just as firm. He had a haircut that made him look like Princess Toadstool and ear gauges so big I could have drove my truck through them.

“Then I want to talk to your manager.” I smiled. I have had this fight before.

When the manager arrived, I explained I felt his company was discriminating against me, and that he should honor his advertised price. He grumbled and he frowned and he smoldered, but in the end, he pushed the Club Pricing button on the register and I got my soda and snack for the advertised price… but not before that asshole made me feel like I was a back-of-the-bus, second-class citizen. He really did not want my business if I refused to give him my name, phone number, address and e-mail address. So I paid cash, just to piss him off. I refused to even give him my credit card number.

Today, if you want the aggravation of that kind of fight, you can get most of these chumps to honor the sale price without the loyalty card. Tomorrow, I am not so sure. I can easily see a future where it is extremely difficult to buy, sell or trade, without registering first. If that is the future we get, it will be of our own making. Just check your key-ring and wallet and count all the retail loyalty cards. Why aren’t you shopping at the competition and rewarding them for respecting your privacy? In today’s world it is not possible to make yourself invisible, but that does not mean you should sell your soul for a buy-one-get-one 50% off vitamin deal. That is just 25% off each, after all.

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