When cards come collecting

How Safeway's new discount cards can be used against you.

You've undoubtedly seen the smiling, disarming men and women perched near the entrance to your local Safeway store, handing out applications for the new "Club Card." The brochure makes cutting coupons out to be heavy labor and repeatedly guarantees "instant" and substantial savings—all with the swipe of a little plastic card at the point of purchase. Why, you may even save on items you didn't realize were on sale! "It's never been this easy," promises Safeway.

The card is now required in order to get Safeway discounts. But to get a card, the store asks customers to provide personal information, including full name, address, birthdate, and home phone number (used to access your account should you forget your card). In tiny print, the application explains why: All purchases—of toilet paper, bacon, prescription medication, video rentals, magazines, and anything else that passes through the scanner—will be automatically recorded in detail into a database and associated with your name and address. Safeway intends to use this information to track regional buying habits and to build customer profiles in order to replace scattershot newspaper coupons with tailored mailings sent directly to card members. Say, Mrs. Johnson, we've noticed that you've been buying baby food lately. You must have a baby in the house. Here are some other baby-related savings you might enjoy. Or the more menacing, So, you've been buying large amounts of painkillers, Mr. Jones. Would you like to try another, more effective, brand?

It's a strategy being employed by more and more stores nationwide to build customer loyalty and compete with such warehouse retailers as the Wal-Mart­owned Sam's Club. Marketing strategists estimate that nearly a quarter of the nation's supermarkets now offer "club cards" and that another 40 percent soon will. Some are marrying the cards with other functions, like check cashing—thus intertwining bank and purchasing information. Other programs link whole groups of retailers—a bank in Cincinnati recently started a card program in which purchases at a host of local stores are recorded in a central database, with discounts and points from all participating retailers given to customers who use the card at any one of them.

If it doesn't bother you that a business should have such comprehensive and personal records of your habits and preferences, consider that Giant Food Inc. was caught earlier this year providing its customers' prescription purchasing information—medical records—to marketers. The grocery store stopped releasing the records after the public found out about it and complained mightily. But companies routinely release or sell information on customers, and grocery store records could—and undoubtedly will—be used in any number of ways.

"Worst-case scenarios," offers Beth Givens, director of the San Diego­based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, "insurance companies use them to look for people who smoke, drink alcohol, take over-the-counter medications that indicate serious health problems, or eat unhealthy foods. Employers could use them to look for people with unhealthy lifestyles." They could also be subpoenaed by police or attorneys trying to build cases, as exemplified by Kenneth Starr's subpoena of bookstore records in the Monica Lewinsky investigation.

Safeway insists that it is sensitive to privacy issues and won't sell or release personally identifying information to other companies. But, as Givens notes, "There is no law that prevents this sort of stuff from happening."

And there's no law to stop stores from using the information for their own benefit in lawsuits, as allegedly happened recently in a case in Los Angeles. Robert Rivera, a customer and card-club member at Vons grocery store (which is owned by Safeway) slipped on some spilled yogurt during a shopping trip and fractured his kneecap. He's now unable to work and is suing the store for damages. During the negotiations, says Rivera's attorney M. Edward Franklin, a mediator claimed that Vons had accessed Rivera's shopping records, discovering frequent purchases of alcohol, and planned to introduce the information at trial to prove that Rivera was a lush with poor memory and coordination. Vons denies accessing the records and says it doesn't, and didn't, plan to use them in court. But Franklin's client is shaken. "One doesn't really expect this warehouse of personal purchase information to be turned against you when all you're trying to do is get some sour cream," he says. "They gather it, saying it's private information, but when it suits Vons, it becomes public information. It's out there for anyone who comes along."

Of course, what shoppers don't realize, and what grocery stores like Safeway don't promote, is that it is often possible to get away without providing any personal information at all. "We've had customers request the ability to change their name to 'Safeway Customer,'" says Debra Lambert, Safeway's corporate director of public affairs. "We do allow that." If you value your privacy, you'll take Lambert up on her offer.

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse can be reached via the Internet at www.privacyrights.org or by phone at 619-298-3396.

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