Blown To Bits

Not Watching, but Weird Anyway

Saturday, January 31st, 2009 by Harry Lewis

I went to the local Stop and Shop to buy groceries this morning, passing on the opportunity to use the hand-held scanner about which I’ve blogged already. Preserving my privacy, remember? When I got to the checkout I was happy to find an open line with both a cashier and a bagger. As I always do, I asked the cashier to use his card — in Massachusetts, supermarkets are required to give you the “loyalty card” price if you ask for it. He acknowledged my request and scanned the groceries. I paid my $57.17 by credit card. As I was starting to wheel my cart away, I checked the register tape and discover that nothing had been discounted. (Why is it that they make you verify the total and complete the transaction BEFORE showing you their account of what you’re buying?)

I complained, and the cashier was surprised and apologetic — plainly he’d just neglected to do it. (When I made my request, though he did hear it, he was in the middle of a conversation with the bagger about whether McDonald’s might have been the source of his indigestion.) By now he’d already started scanning the next customer’s order.

He directed me to the service desk, staffed by two teenagers. I explained my problem, and one of them took the register tape, tore something off the bottom, and gave me back the rest. He then scanned or punched something into his computer and handed me $4.41 in cash. It took only a few seconds.

Now what strikes me about this is that the entire record of my purchase was accessible at the service desk. There are many good reasons for retaining those records — to prevent me from “returning” the same purchase multiple times, for example, the record can be updated to show when an item is returned. And of course a great deal of the analytical value of the data doesn’t depend on knowing my identity. But the instant rebate of exactly $4.41 reminds me how disaggregated the scanner data remains — probably forever.

And by the way — in the realm of really, truly watching you in stores — some of those video displays that show ads now have tiny, hidden cameras and enough processing smarts to tell whether you’re black or white, male or female — and to adjust the ads you are shown accordingly!

5 Responses to “Not Watching, but Weird Anyway”

  1. Mike C Says:

    > I asked the cashier to use his card …
    > I paid my $57.17 by credit card.

    I’ve always assumed that, even if you decline to use a “loyalty card”, paying by credit card would still tie your identity to the purchase you just made, and that the only way to truly ensure anonymity was to pay cash.

    Not true?

    (I apologize if you’ve already addressed this in “Blown to Bits” — I’m only just starting the book today)

  2. Harry Lewis Says:

    I’d love to get an authoritative answer to that question. My understanding is that the credit card company does not automatically get item-level detail on the purchases. You are right that there is no technological reason why they couldn’t; if I’m correctly informed that they don’t. it’s a matter of policy or of regulation.

  3. Janos Simon Says:

    On the possibly positive side of costumer identification: a little while ago we got an automated call from Costco, warning us that one of the items we bought may have been contaminated by a bacterium, warning us not to eat it, and offering a refund.

  4. Harry Lewis Says:

    How did they identify you? From your Costco card? (And this the Janos Simon who’s an old friend of mine? 🙂

  5. Ashwin Thangali Says:

    Trader Joe’s has one of those “Sale is a four letter word for us. If it helps, everything we sell is on sale, always” banners. The produce selection is not vast but at least they are conscientious. You wont find one of them self-checkout lines, loyalty card or other fancy gimmicks. I hope they hold strong and continue expansion in the greater Boston area.