Saturday, January 27, 2018

1990sFest: Day Eight — Turns out Big Brother is neighborhood grocer

     Whenever people get tied into a knot over their information being harvested and used, I think of this column. The joke is that our personal details were ALWAYS traded around by our associates. It's the idea that we should be anonymous that's new.
     Oh, and Dominick's Finer Foods is long gone. So mining my information didn't help them, or at least didn't help them enough. 

     Conjure up the standard grocery fantasy: Mr. Cooper, behind the wooden counter in a small store with a pickle barrel and a little bell that jingles when you walk in. "Why hello there, Mrs. Smith," says Mr. Cooper, rubbing his hands together. "We have a nice shipment of cherries today. . ."
     That image unites the American people as much as the flag does. It strikes a chord even for those too young to remember anything like it, which is most people. The closest I ever got was a hardware store off Logan Boulevard where the owner wrapped my purchase in brown paper and twine and figured out the bill in pencil on the side of the package. I plan to cherish that memory for the rest of my life, particularly when going to the store becomes punching a number into a keypad and waiting for your purchase to slide down the chute.
     Keep Mr. Cooper in mind. We'll get back to him later.
     My local supermarket is Dominick's Finer Foods on North Broadway. I like my Dominick's, in the main. Their cashiers are nice. They've got one, Carlos, who helped my wife with groceries when she was big and pregnant. And once, when the bill was $33.06, and I was fishing in my pocket, filling time by saying, "I've got 6 cents," Carlos riposted, "You've got a sixth sense?"
     Not the best joke, but enough to build customer loyalty.
     Like any relationship, my cozy bond with Dominick's is always being tested. For instance, on the way in I would sometimes grab a cart and take it inside with me.
     Then the Dominick's put up a big sign. "PLEASE BRING A SHOPPING CART INSIDE WITH YOU." Immediately I took offense. What's the matter? Can't Dominick's pay a few minimum wage teens to collect shopping carts and not dump the responsibility onto its customers? What's next? "PLEASE GRAB A MOP BY THE DOOR AND TIDY UP SPILLS AS YOU SHOP"? My affection for Dominick's cooled, for a while.
     Eventually, of course, I was able to rationalize the sign. Dominick's is just appealing to customers' higher nature. This sign happens to be directed toward the operation of the store, but the next one could exhort people to trust in God.
     The latest test came when Dominick's instituted a card: Fresh Values. You give them your name and address and Social Security number and driver's license number and they issue you this card with which you can get discounts and cash checks. Jewel has had one like it for years.
     I saw the new card and felt a chill. I know how these things work. They feed your purchase information into the big Dominick's computer in Northlake, and before you know it there's a hurt little note from Bird's Eye slipped under your door every time you forget to buy frozen peas.
     We live in an information age, and people tend to guard their personal information the way they once guarded their good name. I had no idea what data about my grocery choices would be used for, and didn't want to find out. All I knew was that when the authorities came for the people who buy pickled herring, my name wouldn't be on the list, and I would slip quietly over the border into Denmark.
     My wife, however, ratted me out to Dominick's. Dazzled by the thought of savings, she signed us up, and slapped our new card into my hand the last time I went to the store to get eggs.
     The eggs cost $ 27.30, including the rib-eye steak and milk and smoked turkey and apples and everything else I picked up on the way to get the eggs.
     But I paid only $ 26.01. My Fresh Values card saved me $ 1.29. Who knows what that $1.29 could become, invested wisely in the current stock market. Probably 45 cents.
     Scurrying home, I pondered the trade-off. A clear-cut deal: Dominick's gives me $ 1.29, and in return gets information, which it swears will only be used for its own research purposes.
     "We are not selling lists at all, period," said Nancy Siler, manager of consumer affairs at Dominick's. "The information is extremely limited to a few individuals within the company, who have signed integrity statements."
     If you can't live with that, you can always pitch the card. It's interesting to have a tangible price put on your sense of free-floating paranoia. Vague unexamined anxiety about Big Brother is one matter. Saving a buck and a quarter is another.
     To put this in perspective, flash back to the cherished ideal, to Mr. Cooper at the little grocery. He knew everything you bought, didn't he? If you started picking up boxes of diapers or quarts of gin, he would certainly note it, and probably even blab about it to his other customers, something I can't picture Dominick's doing even in my worst Orwellian nightmare (although it's fun to imagine how they would. A computerized letter, probably. "Dear Lake View Resident: Did you know that NEIL STEINBERG is buying an awful lot of Ben & Jerry's ice cream for a man trying to lose weight. . . .")
     Odd how the misty nostalgic past and the scary anticipated future can end up being almost exactly same thing.

         —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 12, 1997


  1. In 1997, that same Dominick's was *our* local supermarket, too. If we had to give them our social security number and driver's license number, I'd forgotten about that. I would never do that today, but we certainly had a Fresh Values card. Gotta say, we saved a helluva lot more than 4 1/2% on our usual outing by using it. (Which I have to imagine your wife did on her visits, as well, NS!) I never particularly cared about some computer analyzing our purchasing profile.

    One of the several things that was appealing to me about Mariano's when it started opening stores in the city was that they *didn't* have such a card, though, and you could get the bargain prices on things without one. Woo-hoo! I felt like it was some kind of bait-and-switch when Mr. Mariano decided to sell the chain to freaking Kroger, which then promptly instituted a card. D'oh! I give Jewel credit for discontinuing theirs, though they lost points by taking out the self-checkouts at the store we go to...

    1. there was a bit of an uproar about cashiers losing their jobs when the stores instituted self checkout lines. management pushed back against the union shops till they figured out it was costing them money to let customers bag their own merchandise because of theft. so some stores got rid of them and people regained a decent low paying job with some benefits. with everybody walking around wired with gps and voice monitoring devices (cell phones and modern cars) the discount cards hardly matter as far as data mining metrics. what I resent is they charge you extra if you refuse to use one. except you can supply false info when you apply for one and still get the card. its all pretty silly and insignificant. or very serious and ominous. who knows?

    2. "they charge you extra if you refuse to use one" That's it in a nutshell. Stores with loyalty programs raise prices in order to lower them. Using a loyalty card never gets you a discount, it keeps you from being overcharged. When Jewel dumped their program, prices all over the store dropped. They started advertising "everyday low prices" but nothing really changed.

      Another thing people don't realize is that points earned on a credit card aren't a giveaway. Banks charge vendors a percentage fee for accepting their card. The vendor, in turn, will raise prices at their business to cover the cost. Whatever you earn with those points, you've paid for. If you pay cash, you're getting screwed.

  2. You do know they never checked whether the info you gave them was correct.
    I always lied on those applications & thus completely screwed up their marketing follies.

  3. This "Mr. Cooper" you conjured up reminds me of Sam Drucker in Hooterville.

    "Our Town Books" in Jacksonville Il. was still wrapping your purchase in brown paper a couple of years ago, when I was last there. Nice little store. Mostly used, but some new books.

  4. Sure, Mr. Cooper & co. could track and share your shopping history, but not at the scale nor with the detail and persistence that today's automation allows. He could also have hired Pinkertons to keep an eye on those minimum wage teens, but probably couldn't cost-justify it; nowadays, employee surveillance can be done for cheap. These rapid advances in technology that we're living through are transformative, so it's risky to assume that minor concerns of the past will stay minor in the future.

    And when Mariano's updated their discount card system a year or so back, it insisted on a verified phone number. It saddened me that I could no longer stick it to the man by punching in 3128675309 or 3125882300.

  5. When our local Dominicks closed the building stayed empty until last summer, which I thought odd because it sits in a large cluster of multi-family homes and the old store always seemed to be busy. Now we have a new Jewel there. Very nice. Bananas at 39 cents a pound.

    Regarding the acquisition of our personal data, John Maynard Keynes once famously said about the notion of market equilibrium, "In the long run we are all dead." Were he alive today he might well have commented "In the long run we are all data."


  6. Really beautiful photo. If I tried to capture the charm of this Mayan (?) site, it would come out looking like a pile of rocks in my backyard.


  7. Except for Walgreen's pharmacy, where every 1,000 "points" saves you a whole dollar, I have always tried my best to avoid those cards whenever possible. Especially the ones called "loyalty cards"...the name reminds me too much of the anti-Communist "loyalty oath" that was once a prerequisite for any university civil service job in Illinois as late as 1970. Even a dishwasher in a dorm had to sign one during those final days of the three Rs...rockin', riotin', and rebellion.

  8. There's a story famous in retail circles about how Target could, well, target female customers who were pregnant by how they bought progressively larger underwear as well as other things I'd rather not specify. They would then send those women coupons for baby clothes etc.

    One man became very indignant when his 17-year-old daughter started getting those coupons. He came to the store and gave the manager a dressing-down about how dare they.

    A few weeks later he wrote to the store:

    "I guess I owe you an apology. It seems there were some activities going on in my house of which I was not aware..."

  9. Tom, Jewel actually bought the lease of the Dom's near them in the far suburbs, so no other gro. store can move in there. Bananaas 49 cents a lb.


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