Cards Games

Should Buyers Beware of How Supermarkets Use "Loyalty Cards" to Collect Personal Data?

Baltimore City Paper, Oct. 1, 2003

Everyone gets worn down and submits, eventually. Even the most resistant. Even Rob Carlson, a privacy-minded person who hated the idea of having a supermarket savings card.

Living in Catonsville at the time, Web programmer Carlson usually foraged at the Metro Food Market on Baltimore National Pike, which he says had the lowest prices. Occasionally, he stopped by the Giant Food on Wilkens Avenue, since it was closer to where he lived. He wasn't happy about it, though. Once Giant offered what seemed to Carlson to be the lowest prices in the area, but when it introduced its Bonus Card in September 2000 it appeared that most of the sales quickly became exclusive to cardholders.

Did these people know what they were giving up by signing onto these programs? Carlson thought.

"My job is to design and maintain databases, and I'm constantly amazed at the things that can be discovered when you have enough data and you know how to ask the right questions," Carlson says. "I think a lot of people who use a supermarket club card either don't realize what data is being collected about them, or don't care."

Size Matters: (below) Matrics Radio Frequency Applications engineer Jason Loy holds a card bearing a RFID tracking tag. The actual tag is the black square at the center and measures less than 1/8" across.

It was during one of his trips of convenience, to purchase a decorative fountain, when Carlson caved. The cashier noted he could save $15 if he used a Giant card. It would take only a minute to fill in the application with a name, address, and phone number. Can't argue with a $15 discount.

And so Carlson slid into the fold, as do many of us.

Still, does anybody actually want to carry around these cards? Some 80 percent of supermarket chains nationwide have card programs, plowing millions of dollars into them. They goad us into applying for cards. But why? What are supermarkets getting out of these cards, exactly?

Just as card sharks read the telltale behavioral tics of their opponents to win more of their money, so supermarkets want to watch their customers' purchasing habits closely to better know how to sell to them. "What we get out of it is insight into the needs of our customers, so we can provide them better service," explains Frank Gallagher, a director of marketing planning and analysis for Giant. The information Giant keeps is basic stuff: the customer's name, address, and phone number (if he or she elects to submit it), along with a list of all the items he or she purchased with that card. In return, shoppers are rewarded with lower prices on certain items.

But, if anything, the controversy of who is playing who has just begun. Privacy advocates worry about the data being collected and how it will be applied, and consumer watchdogs grumble about whether or not the cards actually save shoppers money. And coming down the road in a few years is a new technology--product-tracking tags--that will make shopping cards look like the ragged tricks of a small-town con artist.

How did we end up carrying around a stack of shopper cards just to get some good deals? It's our own fault, say retail industry observers. We're shopping sluts, always looking for a quick fix, hastily plucking whatever item is cheapest from the shelf, from whatever store is nearest.

Within the supermarket industry, these plastic rectangles are known as "loyalty cards," a term that amuses John Stanton, a professor of marketing at Philadelphia's St. Joseph's University and co-author of a book on product marketing titled Success Leaves Clues. Many consumers carry around thick stacks of the cards, he points out: "It's like if I said to my wife, 'I'll be loyal to you and four other women.'"

On a sunny afternoon last month, I accosted about a dozen shoppers in the parking lots of three shopper-card-carrying local supermarkets. "Why do you shop here?" I asked. In almost every instance, I got the same response: convenience. "It was on the way home from work," said one patron outside the Charles Village Safeway, as he loaded parcels into the trunk of his car. Not one of the participants said that a loyalty card gave him or her the slightest motivation to go out of his or her way to shop at a specific store.

Fifty or so years ago, grocery-store customers were a more predictable lot, says Ron Swift, a vice president of strategic customer relations for Teradata, a division of NCR, formerly National Cash Register Corp. Customers mostly shopped at their neighborhood store and bought the same basic items each time out. The grocer would have a pretty good idea of what would be in the register at the end of the day and what would need to be replaced on the shelves.

Those days are gone. People got smarter. Hopping in their cars, they shopped around, compared prices, used coupons. So, like a spurned lover who turns to a private dick to learn more about a beloved's philandering ways, the supermarket chains turned to technology, hoping to find out more about what shoppers buy, and to understand why they buy it.

While the local grocery market is stable, these companies feel competitive pressures from elsewhere, says Jeffrey Metzger, publisher of Food World, the Mid-Atlantic's regional supermarket trade journal. In the past five years or so nonsupermarkets--mostly Wal-Mart and drug-store chains like Rite Aid and CVS--have increasingly taken in more local grocery dollars. In an increasingly competitive landscape, a store's profits are hard won: A supermarket may make 3 cents on every dollar of merchandise it sells, Metzger says.

This is where Teradata comes in. This Dayton, Ohio-based company sells data-mining systems, computer systems that can hold and analyze vast amounts of data. Ron Swift flies around the country selling supermarket companies on the idea that such powerful systems can easily characterize the purchasing habits of individual shoppers. Most of the companies buy into the idea, Swift says, and such a claim seems credible. In 2002 alone, Teradata sold about $1.1 billion of data warehouses across the retail sector, according to the company's public filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Stores have always known what they've sold, at least after a tally of the day's sales. And they have usually had at least a vague idea of what their customers want. Strong sales of Puppy Chow indicate that lots of dog lovers live nearby. But what data mining promises is "to know the customer's lifestyle and what they prefer," Swift says. Through sifting the data it collects, Teradata has found, for instance, that shoppers who buy a lot of baby supplies, such as diapers, tend to buy a lot of film for their cameras, too. Teradata's systems scour a market's records for such affinities, seeking strong bankable connections that supermarkets can utilize. Putting the steak sauce next to the steaks, so to speak.

St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Catalina Marketing is another company that markets customer data-collection systems to grocery stores. Catalina installs systems at cash registers that spit out coupons with register receipts. By knowing who a shopper is through his or her use of a loyalty card, the company claims it can deliver a coupon tailored to that customer.

If you don't know Catalina, chances are Catalina knows you. The company works with about 18,000 supermarkets nationwide (its Web site lists Giant, Safeway, Food Lion, and CVS as customers, among others), keeping a database of 100,000 households. Their shopping records stretch back "at least one year" in order to track long-term buying habits, says Trish Brynjolfsson, who is a Catalina vice president of retailer marketing. Brynjolfsson would not say how long Catalina keeps the records beyond one year. The company charts not only what items you buy but also how often you come into the store and how many items you buy when you do. It knows if you like to switch brands.

While some consumers are doggedly brand-loyal, "there are certain customers who are promotionally sensitive--they are looking for savings," Brynjolfsson says. In fact, she estimates that 80 percent of shoppers switch brands frequently. By using the kind of data Catalina collects--in part through loyalty cards--manufacturers of competing products can pitch the switch-hitters with instant coupons for their own products. Turn over the back of a Catalina-generated receipt and you may very well find a coupon for a product you have thought of trying, from a secret admirer of your wandering ways.

Companies like Catalina and Teradata use this data to spot trends and insist they have little use for individual information. Brynjolfsson says that it would be difficult--though possible--to single out and review one person's buying history, but that the company has no business interest in doing such.

If this all sounds a little manipulative, remember these companies swear that a well-executed loyalty-card program can be a win-win for both shopper and shop. And they may have a point.

See, it is bad marketing that offends people, Teradata's Swift says. People get irked at useless coupons stuffing their mailboxes, at telemarketing sales pitches for products they can't use. But if you were approached with a deal that might actually be of interest, you wouldn't see that as marketing, he argues. You'd see that as helpful. It'd also be cheaper for the stores.

"Say a baby-food manufacturer want to target a new product," Giant's Gallagher says. "Instead of dropping 4 million coupons in the area, it may want to target customers shopping in our stores and already buying their products. It's more efficient for the manufacturer and for us as well."

So why shouldn't we make use of data-mining technology to make our lives more convenient, to have our local grocery anticipate our needs like an attentive lover?

But Rob Carlson, for one, was not ready to let his shopping history go so easily. "It's only an ignorant or apathetic consumer who is willing to trade a very personal profile of their home life every week for 30 cents off a gallon of milk," Carlson says. He thought about what he could do to raise awareness of how these loyalty-card systems worked. When he posted his thoughts to an Internet mailing list, someone else off-handedly mentioned that there was no reason that the bar-code label on the back of each Giant card couldn't be replaced. Reading this, Carlson had the flash of inspiration to set up Rob's Giant Bonus Card Swap Meet.

Carlson's site works like this: You enter your Giant card number on a form. It puts this number into a pool of numbers gathered from participants. Drawing from this pool, it displays for each visitor a bar-code replica of someone else's number, allowing the visitor to print it out and tape onto his or her own card. Should you actually take the time to do this and then visit the local Giant to use this card, you are, to Giant, someone else. If enough people do this, the argument goes, Giant's shopper profiles are rendered muddied and ultimately useless.

Online since January 2001, the site has gotten thousands of hits. Carlson has no illusions that there will ever be enough of a groundswell to make any difference to Giant, however. "The intent of a card swap or a site like mine is less about affecting the supermarket and more about educating the consumer," Carlson says.

Giant wouldn't comment on Carlson's site, though Catalina's Brynjolfsson says that tricks like using a fake name or swapping cards has no effect on its records. Such tricks only cause the customer him- or herself to be deprived of the "the full benefit" of the system, Brynjolfsson says.

Carlson is not alone in his misgivings. Katherine Albrecht founded Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, or CASPIAN, to alert consumers of the potential dangers of supermarkets collecting extensive personal shopping histories through loyalty cards. "There are many, many things that nobody's got any business knowing about anybody else," the organization's Web Site ( fumes.

Although most stores say they don't sell the data to outside parties, they do frequently sell it to "partners" or companies that do business with the stores, CASPIAN claims. Giant does not sell its records to third parties, though it will mail coupons to Giant customers for third-party vendors, Gallagher says. While neither Safeway nor Super Fresh returned phone calls for this article, the privacy policies posted on Super Fresh and Safeway's Web sites look similar to Giant's. And with the data so freely available, it could be put to the wrong uses--even be used against you.

One supermarket chain turned over all its purchasing records to three federal law-enforcement agencies in the days after Sept. 11, 2001--without even being asked to do so--according to a July 2002 Village Voice article.

Most retail stores seem to have little problem in turning your records over to law-enforcement officials or subpoena-wielding lawyers. Remember a few years ago when Kramerbooks in Washington refused to hand over to special prosecutor Kenneth Starr's minions a list of the books Monica Lewinsky purchased on the grounds that it was an invasion of her privacy? Don't expect your supermarket to do the same for you.

Gallagher says that if presented with the proper subpoenas, Giant would disclose shopper records. It even states as much on the card application form.

After hearing the sales pitches of Teradata and Catalina, it's surprising to realize that not every store uses loyalty cards. Metro Food Markets, which operates 9 stores around Baltimore, eschews use of the cards, as does its parent company, Shoppers Food Warehouse. (Soon all Metros will be known as Shoppers Food Warehouses.) The company looked at using such systems, says Rick Rodgers, a senior vice president of merchandising for Shoppers, but didn't see the benefit to them. "We offer the same deal to all our customers. It works for us, and we feel our customers appreciate it," he says.

Although not primarily a vendor of groceries, Wal-Mart, widely considered in the industry to be the most efficiently run retail business, is another no-card store.

Food World publisher Jeffrey Metzger divides the grocery business into two general categories. Stores like Metro and Wal-Mart fall into a category Metzger calls "everyday low price stores." Such stores draw customers by cutting the prices of all items as much as possible. For these stores, there is little value in using in savings cards. They compete on price alone.

The second category is what Metzger calls the "high-low stores." These are stores like Giant, Super Fresh, and Safeway that heavily discount selected items, hoping to entice people into the store for those savings. The store makes up the difference on other items the customer is likely to buy once inside. Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering accuses such stores of jacking up their prices and offering items for cardholder-only sales at what would normally be the non-sale price, giving customers the warm, but false, feeling of saving money.

So are savings cards a ruse? Do no-card everyday low price joints really offer lower prices every day? On the rainy night of Friday, Sept. 12, I visited four Baltimore supermarkets to compare some prices. I visited the Charles Village Safeway, the Rotunda Giant, the Super Fresh in Hampden, and the Metro Food in South Baltimore. I compared the prices of 36 items ranging from taco shells to Hamburger Helper. I picked eight items from each store that were on sale, and four more staple items.

Admittedly, this study was unscientific, but this is what I found: Metro seems to be the cheapest, but just barely. If I were to buy all of the items on my list at Metro, it would cost me $66.52. But at Giant, using its Bonus Card, the total would nearly be the same, at $67.19. These items would cost a card-carrying Super Fresh member $72.71 and a Safeway loyalist $76.80.

Keep in mind, this is a sample from sale items picked more or less at random. Since there's only a $10 spread between the least expensive and most expensive store, it could be entirely possible that with another 36 items Safeway could have come out ahead.

Beyond raw price comparisons, however, other factors stood out. Each store had its share of good deals, as well as its share of high-priced items. (Giant charged $3.79 for a 15-ounce box of Cheerios, while the other markets had the cereal on sale for around $2 a box.) Overall, one store's patrons don't seem to get more overcharged than any other store's patrons. But no one store's loyal customer will come out that much ahead, either.

But contrary to CASPIAN's contention, cardholders do enjoy good savings from time to time. With your Giant card, you could have scored a 100-ounce container of Tide liquid detergent for $4.99 on Sept. 12, while other markets in town--including no-card Metro--charged $7.79. But as CASPIAN contends, those club-card-driven savings the markets are proud to trumpet are equivalent to regular sales at stores with no cards. You may have a Super Savings Card, but it isn't a Super Duper Savings Card. You're probably not saving more than you would be in no-card stores.

One last aspect leaps out: Defiance costs. If you're not using a card at a place that wants you to use them, you'll get screwed. Sans cards, my groceries that night would have cost $82.55 at Super Fresh, $86.28 at Safeway, and $76.77 at Giant. CASPIAN encourages consumers not to use cards when shopping as a way to send a message to the markets. Some message. Sending that message to Safeway would have cost you $9.48--payable directly to Safeway itself.

So what is going on here, assuming that these stores offer groceries at more or less the same price? No-card stores like Metro and Mars Super Markets try to duke it out on price alone, hoping Wal-Mart doesn't come in and crush them. Meanwhile, the high-low stores offer similar savings but want to learn a bit more about you in return, like what you and people like you tend to buy. So the next time you come in for one item, they may better know what other items you might just throw another in the basket that you weren't consciously planning on purchasing. Especially items with high profit margins.

In theory, anyway. The dirty little secret of data mining is that stores don't actually use these data mining systems very much. In many cases, chains install the systems at considerable expense (prices start at $500,000 to install Catalina's products in a small grocery chain's stores). Yet, after they are installed, the data they reap usually isn't analyzed, Professor Stanton says. Many chains have the old penny-pinching mentality. So they may invest in a data-collection system but not in the software and training needed to get full use of the resulting data.

Food World's Metzger agrees that the grocery stores in the Mid-Atlantic region don't fully use the collected data. Shoppers Food Warehouse's Rodgers says that part of the reason Metro doesn't use shopping cards is that it doesn't see a clear value in having all that data.

Something else is needed to complete the puzzle. Enter the next technology that will be pitched to help supermarkets survive in their hypercompetitive, loyalty-starved world: tracking tags.

The tags don't look like much. You can hardly see them, in fact--they are about the size of a head of a pin. They are called radio frequency identification tags, or RFID tags. If you don't know what they are today, you will in five years. They are widely expected to take the place of bar codes, and they also could be used to keep track of customers more closely than even the most wildly optimistic loyalty-card pitchman could dream.

The future of this technology may spring from Columbia. There, a technology engineering company called Matrics has developed tags, antennas, and readers it hopes will be adopted by grocery stores and other retail outlets. It is but one small 50-person company among a sea of similar manufacturers getting ready to ramp up sales of these tags. Many belong to an industry body called the Auto-ID Center.

A windowless room in Matrics' offices is set up for demonstrations. It resembles a mock store. On one side of the room are shelves of typical consumer items: some DVDs, a small rack of shirts, some coffee mugs, books, cans of coffee. Each of these items bears a small, nearly unnoticeable RFID tag.

Joe White, Matrics' senior director of application engineering, shows me a tag, and that is exactly what it looks like: a tag with sticky adhesive on the back, one you could stick on a package of just about anything. The back peels off to reveal a tiny metal chip, .012 inches thick, with little silver threads (its antennas) stemming from it.

The chips are passive. In other words, they have no power source, such as a battery. Instead, a transmitter sends out a radio wave of a certain frequency, which reverberates with the tags. Each tag holds a unique serial number that is read by the RFID antenna.

White turns on a computer in the corner of the room and launches some software that scans everything in the room through antennas built into the wall. The software shows a virtual representation of the "store," showing where each and every item is located.

Despite--or perhaps because of--their size, RFID tags could revolutionize the retail industry. Customers would like these tags mostly because, if they were affixed to products, those products would no longer have to be taken out of the cart to be paid for. A cashier (or an automated checkout machine) could just wave a wand over a cart full of items and spit out a grand total within a few seconds. Retailers would like them even more (which is why they are all but an inevitability, RFID manufacturers reason with fiscal optimism). A store can put readers throughout the shopping area and keep tabs on each and every item on its shelves. If a store were running out of one item, the manager would know it sooner and be able to restock it faster; supermarket chains could spot trends more quickly as well. RFID tags could also make shoplifting pretty much impossible: If an item is tagged, a manager will know if it is leaving the store without being paid for.

Industry analysts predict that RFID tags may become widespread on consumer shelves by 2007 or so. Naturally, RFID tags have consumer advocacy groups spooked. The week of Sept. 15, CASPIAN staged a protest outside Chicago's McCormick Place Convention Center, where an RFID trade show was taking place, with companies such as Gillette and Procter and Gamble showing off how they could tag their products with the devices.

Privacy advocates have called these RFID tags spy chips. While helpful inside the store, the potential problem is that these tags could be used outside the store, after the sale. Each tag is individually numbered and, in conjunction with the kind of records a loyalty-card system compiles, could theoretically be tracked back to the person who bought a particular item.

CASPIAN spokeswoman Liz McIntyre paints a picture of a consumer-friendly Orwellian nightmare in an RFID world. For instance, she postulates, it would be possible, if not probable, for some fiendish corporation or government agency to collect a list of every item you own, using the tag numbers of the items you purchased. Then it could track you down, merely by scanning the landscape for those tag numbers. With such tags sprinkled about your person, a retail store could identify you the moment you enter the front door, identifying you from previous purchases you're wearing or carrying. "Immediately you can be tracked," McIntyre says. "They will know where you're going and how long you linger. How much comparison shopping you do."

Earlier this year, the Auto-ID Center, recognizing a growing backlash against the technology, set forth specifications for ways that the tags could be turned off at the checkout counter, not unlike the way anti-shoplifting devices are neutralized--it's called a killtag function. McIntyre doubts companies would go for this, however. After all, there are plenty of good reasons for enticing customers to leave RFID tags active. An active tag could be used to identify products still under warranty, for instance.

Kevin Ashton, executive director of the Auto-ID Center, pooh-pooh's CASPIAN's dystopian vision. First of all, he notes, it's highly doubtful retailers would ever voluntarily give away any information about who bought their products to other businesses: "Retailers are very unlikely to share this kind of information with their competition," Ashton says. Secondly, there are very real physical limits to how far away these tags can be identified. Tags without their own power supplies--which is to say most tags currently proposed--can only be read from a few feet away at most. Everyday barriers like water and metal block the signals. "While the technology is likely to improve over time, there are some fundamental limits that make things like reading RFID from outer space seem unlikely," Ashton says.

Lastly, and most importantly for Ashton, the problem with this all-seeing RFID scenario "is that most customers would hate it, so it wouldn't be very effective," he says.

Or maybe they just won't care.

Outside the Charles Village Safeway, a woman pulls her plastic bags of groceries from her cart. "Doesn't it disturb you that the supermarkets are keeping records of what you buy?" I ask.

"It doesn't bother me, " she says, shrugging. "It's only food."

--Joab Jackson

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