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Key Card Intrusions

I never make a trip to the United States without visiting a supermarket.  To me they are more fascinating than any fashion salon.

- Wallis, Duchess of Windsor


A person buying ordinary products in a supermarket is in touch with his deepest emotions.

- John Kenneth Galbraith

by Barton Boyer

To the Editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune,

The Union-Tribune has carried some interesting articles about computers and their use for compiling personal information databases on individuals.  Some of these articles have been moderately alarming.  But interestingly, while a couple of our local supermarkets are providing textbook examples of this privacy invasion, the Union-Tribune has completely ignored them.

The examples to which I'm referring are the new Vons Club and Lucky Rewards cards presently being distributed by Vons and Lucky stores.

Since the Vons and Lucky supermarkets are substantial Union-Tribune advertisers, it's not difficult to understand why their systems have not come under scrutiny.  (Also, for the same reason, I'd guess the likelihood of you printing this letter is vanishingly small.  Can't bite the hand that feeds us, can we?)

For those who are unfamiliar with these card systems, I'll give a brief description: the card is a small, barcode device designed to be carried on a keychain.  Scanning the barcode identifies one as an individual who is entitled to discounts on a limited and revolving selection of products.  If you, while shopping, select one of these products and present your keycard at the register, the discount is yours.  Those who lack the card are not eligible for this discount.  Arid the discounts are sometimes substantial thus making the keycard an attractive means of reducing one's food bill.

The keycard is acquired by filling out an application.  But you need to supply a fair amount of information: name, address, phone number, birth date, et cetera.  The Vons application even requires Social Security Number and driver's license numbers!  Your keycard application will not be processed if all information is not supplied.

The discounts offered the keycard holder are obvious, substantial and quantifiable.  Clearly, the holder obtains value.  But what do Vons and Lucky get from these transactions?  Why are they interested in giving us free money?  Even with computers, it's quite a lot of trouble for them to keep track of us and our purchases.

I don't know the answer to these questions, but I can suggest some possibilities.  First, Vons and Lucky record, not just the discounted items you've purchased, but a list of everything you purchase along with the discounted items.  And because you don't necessarily know if you've selected a discounted item, you proffer the keycard, automatically, every time you go through the checkout line.  If you should forget to hand over your card, you will be prompted by the checker.  Thus Vons and Lucky have a running tabulation of your purchases even when you fail to receive a beneficial discount.

I had to reflect a little while before I grasped the implications of this discount card system.

Using this system, Vons and Lucky get to know quite a lot about you.  For example, they know your favourite brands of soda, breakfast cereal and ice cream.  That's not very alarming, but they also know your product preferences for feminine hygiene; whether you use sanitary napkins or tampons.  They know about your yeast infection problem.  They know your brand of hemorrhoid salve, what diapers you use (child or adult) and your mouthwash.  They know your wine and liquor preferences - fine or otherwise - and thus a bit about your drinking habits.  They can deduce something about your health from your age and purchase of fat-free products.  They even know if you have false teeth from your purchase of denture adhesives!

In addition, the keycard applicant supplies Vons and Lucky with sufficient information for reviewing credit history.  They can learn your salary, what you paid for your home, how much you still owe, even your bank and credit card balances.  And by combining their database with a commercial database they can do some of the most precisely targeted advertising, promotions and selling in marketing history.

And they can sell this information to others.  For example, an insurance company might use the data about your purchases of red meat, potato chips, beer and cigarettes to deny a health policy.

The card can even identify a lost set of keys, right to your front door.  (If you lose your keys, or leave them at the register, you better hope all those folks at Vons and Lucky are honest.)

So, upon reflection, I've decided that I don't like this new keycard discount system.  I'm sure the Nazis would have liked it... especially the Nazis.  Because Vons and Lucky even know who is buying Kosher, don't they?

Barton Boyer
San Diego

Ordering Pizza in 2006

Operator:  "Thank you for calling Pizza Hut.  May I have your national ID number?"

Customer:  "Hi, I'd like to place an order."

Operator:  "I must have your NIDN first, sir?"

Customer:  "My National ID Number.  Yeah, hold on, it's 6102049998-45-54610."

Operator:  "Thank you, Mr Sheehan.  I see you live at 1742 Meadowland Drive, and the phone number's 494-2366.  Your office number over at Lincoln Insurance is 745-2302, and your cell number's 266-2566.  Email address is [email protected].  Which number are you calling from, sir?"

Customer:  "Huh? I'm at home.  Where d'ya get all this information?"

Operator:  "We're wired into the HSS, sir."

Customer:  "The HSS, what is that?"

Operator:  "We're wired into the Homeland Security System, sir.  This will add only 15 seconds to your ordering time."

Customer:  (Sighs) "Oh, well, I'd like to order a couple of your All-Meat Special pizzas."

Operator:  "I don't think that's a good idea, sir."

Customer:  "Whaddya mean?"

Operator:  "Sir, your medical records and commode sensors indicate that you've got very high blood pressure and extremely high cholesterol.  Your National Health Care provider won't allow such an unhealthy choice."

Customer:  "What?  What do you recommend, then?"

Operator:  "You might try our low-fat Soybean Pizza.  I'm sure you'll like it."

Customer:  "What makes you think I'd like something like that?"

Operator:  "Well, you checked out 'Gourmet Soybean Recipes' from your local library last week, sir.  That's why I made the suggestion."

Customer:  "All right, all right.  Give me two family-sized ones, then."

Operator:  "That should be plenty for you, your wife and your four kids, and your 2 dogs can finish the crusts, sir.  Your total is $49.99."

Customer:  "Lemme give you my credit card number."

Operator:  "I'm sorry sir, but I'm afraid you'll have to pay in cash.  Your credit card balance is over its limit."

Customer:  "I'll run over to the ATM and get some cash before your driver gets here."

Operator:  "That won't work either, sir.  Your chequing account's overdrawn also."

Customer:  "Never mind!  Just send the pizzas.  I'll have the ash ready.  How long will it take?"

Operator:  "We're running a little behind, sir.  It'll be about 45 minutes, sir.  If you're in a hurry you might want to pick 'em up while you're out getting the cash, but then, carrying pizzas on a motorcycle can be a little awkward."

Customer:  "Wait! How do you know I ride a 'cycle?"

Operator:  "It says here you're in arrears on your car payments, so your car got repo'ed.  But your Harley's paid for and you just filled the tank yesterday."

Customer:  "Well I'll be a @#%/[email protected]&?#!&?#!"

Operator:  "I'd advise watching your language, sir.  You've already got a July 4, 2004 conviction for cussing out a cop, and another one I see here in September for contempt at your hearing for cussing at a judge.  Oh yes I see here that you just got out from a 90 day stay in the State Correctional Facility.  Is this your first pizza since your return to society?"

Customer:  (Speechless)

Operator:  "Will there be anything else, sir?"

Customer:  "Yes, I have a coupon for a free 2 liter of Coke."

Operator:  "I'm sorry sir, but our ad's exclusionary clause prevents us from offering free soda to diabetics.  The New Constitution prohibits this.  Thank you for calling Pizza Hut!"

[Maybe I shouldn't laugh.]


Supermarket Checks out Customer Tastes

On Record ... a customer uses her card for a discount

by Rachel Grunwell

Big Brother might not be watching you yet, but your supermarket could be.

When customers sign up for a Foodtown discount card, the supermarket records what they have bought and spent.  It knows the eating likes and dislikes and grocery bill costs of more than 560,000 card-carrying shoppers.

Progressive Enterprises managing director Ted van Arkel said the card gave customers about 2000 discounts in the store each week and in return Foodtown sent them promotional mailouts.  It recently sent wine-buying members information on how to join its new wine club.  Van Arkel said information on what people bought stayed in the data bank for only three months.  However, moves were in line to upgrade the system so it could hold information longer.  He insisted the chain did not analyse each customer, and although it knew what each person spent, it did not use that information to find out who was rich or poor, for example.  It is against the Privacy Act to sell customers' details to other traders.  Van Arkel said overseas supermarket giant Tesco recorded receipts of millions of customers and asked them to join hundreds of clubs.

Foodtown is only one of a number of organisations which keeps data banks on customers.  Farmers has about 600,000 members and Fly Buys has 718,000 members, all of whom are sent promotional information.  Farmers chief excutive Bruce Gordon said customer details were kept indefinitely.  Farmers was constantly investigating how to use its data base more wisely to target customers.

Consumers' Institute chief executive David Russell said people needed to be aware that many cards were used to show how people shopped.  He believed many people were unaware cards were used for promotional purposes when they signed up.  But most didn't mind.  He said card offers were fine as long as those signing knew they would be sent promotional material and might be part of a data base.  He received numerous calls from people asking "how did they get my name"? and urged them to check the fine print.  "It's OK if they can identify a trend without identifying that David Russell, for instance, is buying two chocolate bars a week."

Privacy Commissioner Bruce Slane said companies should be open about how they would use information "to reduce the surprise factor".

Source: Sunday Star Times 20 January 2000 photo credit Murray Job

Shopping Carts Roll out Family-Friendly Features

Redesign makes buggies more convenient to use, easier to round up in lot

A Meijer's employee gathers carts in the parking lot.
Many stores are going to a remote-controlled cart collector that cuts down on labour
and actually makes the job fun - somewhat like playing a video game.

by Karen Talaski

New in your grocer's parking lot: It's got four wheels, a cup holder, an anti-theft device, wireless technology and plenty of leg room for Junior.  Behold the shopping cart, a retail mainstay since 1937.  While the basic design hasn't changed much since, stores and manufacturers are adding accessories to make the humble buggy safer and easier to use.

There are rubber bumpers to prevent door dings in the parking lot.  Handlebars have a well for a cup of coffee.  Larger buggies with double-decker baskets give shoppers more room for both fragile eggs and jumbo jugs of laundry soap.  Even the dreaded parking-Iot task of cart collection has advanced, thanks to new machines that mobilise dozens of linked carts with a flick of a switch.

Industry experts say convenience-driven families are the inspiration for building a better shopping cart.  Kid-friendly features are key, they say, because a good cart can be the difference between a full basket or a sale missed when a cranky child throws a tantrum in the deli section.

"Success or even survival means meeting the needs of the heaviest-spending households," said Jon Hauptman, vice president of Willard Bishop Consulting, a Barrington, Illinois-based firm.  "And those are households with children."

At Kroger, some carts come equipped with infant carriers.  Target is using a cart that it calls the "Roadster," which carries two toddlers at once.

Farmer Jack, an A&P-owned supermarket chain in Michigan and Ohio, is looking at adding a cart like the "Bean."  Manufactured by Salem, Massachusetts-based McCue, it is a standard-size cart attached to a plastic kiddie car that keeps children safe - and entertained - during a shopping trip.

(I took this picture at SuperFoodTown in Cedar Knolls with my new digital camera)

Even some department stores, which traditionally shunned buggies, recently added them to their stores.  Both Kohl's and Sears chose carts that combine a stroller and a shopping bag in one sleek design.  "It was an instant hit," Sears spokeswoman Jan Drummond said.  "People stay longer in the store, and they shop in more departments because they're not weighed down.  They buy more."

Carts now come in all sizes, configurations and finishes.  Plastic carts are popular at discounter Meijer, where shoppers say they are more attractive and easier to push, John Zimmerman, spokesman for the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based regional chain said. Another plus: "Plastic is a lot friendlier to cars."

There are dozens of manufacturers who stay busy replacing carts as they wear out or are "displaced," the industry's term for lost or stolen carts.  Replacing a cart is expensive: the average cart costs $65 to $125.

Theft has encouraged retailers to try a bevy of preventive measures.  In a pilot program, some Kroger stores in California have installed underground cables in their parking lots, much like the electronic "invisible fence" used to keep household pets in line.  Should someone try to walk off the property with a cart, its wheels lock up and render it immobile, spokesman Gary Rhodes said.

Other technologies have made cart collection a breeze.  Meijer started using QuicKart, a remote-controlled cart collector, more than a year ago, Zimmerman said.  The collector requires little labour beyond a deft hand on a joystick.  In fact, steering it reminds young baggers of a video-game controller, so all the employees want to play with it, Zimmerman said.  It also has made recruiting people for the job easier, because anyone can operate the device.

According to the manufacturer, Dane Industries in Plymouth, Minnesota, the model Meijer uses costs about $5,000.  Zimmerman said Meijer plans to purchase one for every store before year's end.

Wireless technology also may change the way people use carts.  New products now in the test phase do everything from collect paperless coupons, beam advertisements to a video screen or scan product bar codes for faster checkout.

As for that wobbly wheel - well, they're still working on it.

Source: Daily Record Morris County New Jersey 5 August 2001 from The Detroit News photo credit Daniel Mears Detroit News

Trolley Helps You Shop till You Get Fit

A supermarket trolley that helps you get fit is being introduced into the UK.  The Trim Trolley features a resistance wheel, like those found in gym equipment, letting customers increase or decrease the effort needed to push it.  It can monitor your heart rate, check the number of calories you're burning and set the speed and length of your session.  hoppers are thought to use about 160 calories during a 40-minute trip around the aisles but by pushing the resistance level up to 7 that increases to 280 - the equivalent of a 20-minute leisurely swim.

Tesco spokeswoman Laura Voyle told the Daily Record: "It's a response to customers' growing concerns about health and fitness.  It's a prototype at the moment and it's hard to say how many stores they could eventually be in."

Source:  Wednesday 28 April 2004

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