Customer loyalty cards: Permission to get creepy?

These loyalty cards save me a lot of money, but there's a dark side to them.
These loyalty cards save me a lot of money, but there’s a dark side to them.

Like many other people, I keep loyalty cards to my favorite stores on my key ring. They save me a metric pantload of money, but I ran into the darker side the other day.

I got a phone call from the New Orleans-based Reily food company telling me that a chili mix I bought at such-and-such a store has been recalled. Seems it has traces of peanuts and/or almonds and can bring me a nasty allergic reaction.

Ooo-eee-ooo.

Then I went shopping and saw another warning on my sales slip from that grocery store. I later checked and I still have that chili mix on hand waiting for my kitchen magic. No mention of peanuts in the ingredients. Reily Foods said in a statement that at least one of the spices the company gets from a third-party supplier contains undeclared nut allergens. Undeclared meaning, it was thrown in there without telling them.

I understand the peanut risk. I have a few friends who have this allergy, and I guess a reaction can be fatal. I don’t have that problem, so I’m going to use the chili mix anyway. I appreciate the fact the grocer and food manufacturer are looking out for me.

But still … how do they know?

Ahh, yes. That loyalty card.

Basically, when you get one of those cards you give the store permission  to track your purchases and tailor their advertising to your known buying patterns in exchange for deep discounts. That’s nice. I like deep discounts, and I like getting dollars-off coupons for products I actually use.

I shop for Dad and myself, and the receipt will tell me how much I’ve saved on my purchases by using the card: Usually around $20 for a purchase of a little less than $100. Not half bad.

But let’s flip this on its head, shall we? If I opt out of the loyalty program, I give the store permission to overcharge me by about $20. That’s the story once you strip away the gee-whiz you’re-saving-money verbiage.

Tracking, tracking everywhere!

But the tracking part is interesting. Of course you can forget about privacy in the Internet age. Somebody, somewhere sees every Website you visit, every Google search and every purchase you make.

None of this is new. Casinos have been tracking customers for years, again via a loyalty card. You get all sorts of swag, comps and maybe some bonus payouts when you win. The casino then knows how much you bet, how much you lose and which games are your favorites. Get right down to it, the casino knows way too much about you.

As if the phone call wasn't enough ... I appreciate it, but it still creeps me out.
As if the phone call wasn’t enough … I appreciate it, but it still creeps me out.

Amazon’s like that too. I love Amazon. They’re my #1 publisher (which gets me a monthly royalty from them), and I buy a lot from that company. Of course I’m gonna get targeted advertising based on what I’ve purchased. That’s just plain smart marketing even if it is creepy.

Noted whistleblower Edward Snowden recently aired his Amazon fears via video link at a Cato Institute symposium. Here’s a highlight:

“Wherever you’re at, wherever that jurisdiction is, they can see what books you’re looking at. This is morally irresponsible, and as a business it’s problematic to allow this to continue when we know for a fact that they have the capability to provide for secure communications because as soon as you go to purchase that book, as soon as money’s involved, they turn it over to encryption.”

Got that? According to a story in The Passive Voice, Amazon encrypts the really vital stuff like your credit card numbers. But your searches are in plain text, readable by anyone.

Okay. I sound like one of those off-the-road paranoid conspiracy types, a candidate for increased medication and maybe one of those canvas blazers with wraparound arms. But bear with me as I offer some evidence:


Tres creepy, no?

Now, let’s get back to customer loyalty cards. This extracted information is good for the company. The consumer (hopefully) knows it’s a trade for lower prices or some good swag. But does the information stay in-house? That’s where things get messy. There’s just no guarantee.

How do you know that customer list or mailing list your on doesn’t get sold to someone else? How do you know a real bad criminal organization, like say, the federal government, won’t get its hands on the data?

All it takes is a little suspicion and a subpoena for Big Brother to peek at your buying/searching habits. And that’s if everything is done above board. What guarantee is there that Uncle Sam observes even these rules?

So what’s a guy to do?

I’m torn. I like the savings and bonuses that come with a loyalty card. Long as I don’t go out of my head when buying — like case lots of whatever it is that they use to make bombs or street drugs — I’m probably all right. Right now the only really telling information one can get from my buying habits is my raging addiction to Cafe Bustelo coffee.

But to live a totally invasion-free life I’ll have to throw my computer out the window, get bound books at a used bookstore, pay cash for everything, stay off all public streets, communicate via carrier pigeon and/or tin cans with string, pay the higher price at the grocery store and wrap my head in tinfoil before going out.

Welcome to the modern world. Dont’cha love it?

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Author: Eric Pulsifer

Eric Pulsifer is a veteran wordsmith with experience as a journalist, editor, musician, and freelance writer.