There I was, staring up at the leafy green world above me as my friend Cinda, foot-reflexologist-in-training, did magical things to my feet. It was a Saturday morning in May, my back yard was an island of serenity, and as we chatted, I drifted into bliss.
Then I said that I'd toured the new Giant on Pantops– which was, indeed, giant– but planned to stick with Kroger. A moment later, I was surprised to see her expression when I glanced at her face.
"What is it?" I asked. Well, it was Kroger's Bonus Cards: They were a dangerous invasion of privacy. With a sinking feeling, I began to listen. What did I care if Kroger found out that I'm hooked on Mahatma brand black beans and rice?
Her hands moved faster as she spoke, and soon I was listening intently, troubled by what I heard. A man had fallen in a supermarket aisle, for instance, and been injured; when he sued for damages, the store threatened to use their record of his liquor purchases to suggest he had a drinking problem. Furthermore, non-cardholders were punished by having to pay more; why should they suffer simply because they refused to let Kroger make records of what they bought and when, and their method of payment?
By the time she was finished, I had announced my intention to not only research and write about shoppers cards, but to cut all four of mine up (Kroger, Giant, Harris Teeter, and CVS) and send them back with letters that spelled out my objections.
The internet is full of resources on what turns out to be a very hot invasion-of-privacy issue. The most exhaustive is probably the site of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy and Invasion (CASPIAN), which has links to many others– including a 1998 Salon.com article about the shopper, Robert Rivera, who got leaned on after he fell.
Here's the story: Rivera slipped on spilled yogurt in a Vons supermarket (which is a Safeway subsidiary) in Los Angeles in 1996 and fractured his kneecap. He sued for damages, as he was unable to work and had to have knee-replacement surgery. According to Rivera's lawyer, during the negotiations Vons let it be known that they had records of his liquor purchases and would use that if the matter went to trial. Vons denies this.
I don't know how the dispute ended, but I do know this: I no longer want Kroger to know anything about me. Unfortunately, it's too late for such sentiments. Twice I've used cardholder coupons that knocked $10 off my grocery bill for having a prescription filled at Kroger– which means that Kroger knows a lot more about me than just what brand of rice I prefer.
Exactly how much more does a non-cardholder pay? I decided to do some research, and chose eight items that Kroger had marked down for Bonus Card customers. A Kroger Bonus Card holder would have paid $12.86 for those items, a non-cardholder $19.28, or a whopping 50 percent more. (For the same eight items, by the way, Giant and Harris Teeter charge a total of $17.28 and $19.68, respectively without a card.)
Archie Fralin, public relations manager for Kroger Mid-Atlantic, says that my example's 50 percent difference is "well above" the average, which Kroger puts at 15 percent. The card program's purpose, he says, is to "reward" customers for their loyalty through lower prices– and Kroger can do that best, he says, by documenting customer preferences.
Did I cut up my cards? Yes and no. Yes, I cut them up– but also no, because I followed my friend Catherine's lead and got new ones in my cats' names.
Now I have both my privacy and those super-low prices. Still, my conscience isn't easy: I haven't told Kroger or its cohorts that I object to what they're doing, and that all their customers suffer from it– cardholders (or, at least, the ones who use their real names) by giving up their privacy, and non-cardholders by paying so much more.
Opinions, anyone? Let me know what you think and I'll revisit the issue soon.
Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902.