Yeah, I have one. Over 70% of people do, even though the vast majority of these despise them. It’s one of those discount cards from a major east-coast grocery chain.

“And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a MARK in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the MARK, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.” – Rev. 13:16-18

I can’t talk about any specific disruptive technologies I may or may not be developing at work right now (grr, stupid NDAs), so today I’m going to talk generically about discount cards.

Every office, PTA meeting, and other suitably large public gathering should have the following: a little dish where everyone throws in their Shaw’s cards (or Dominick’s or Kroger or Jewel-Osco or Piggly Wiggly or whatever the local mon/duopoly is), swirls them around and picks one at random. It’s no secret what they’re for–linking a longterm purchase history with a specific individual using a GUID–but this mass data-collection’s ultimate impact on the consumer, beyond the halcyon hype of the card purveyor, is often less explored.

There is of course the worry that if said history data is already there, sitting at the ready, it’s only a matter of time before someone uses it for other than its intended purposes. Sadly, it already happens: there are already known instances of shoppers being investigated as terrorists as a result of having statistically anomalous buying habits, as well as Drug Enforcement Agency requests for information about consumers suspected, for example, of buying large numbers of plastic bags. Last year, a firefighter was charged with arson when his house caught on fire, based in part on Safeway card purchase records indicating that he had previously purchased the same type of camp firestarter found at the scene. (The charges were dropped after another person confessed to the crime.) This August, three men with Arab names were arrested on terrorism charges for making a bulk purchase of 80 cell phones from a Wal-Mart. (Pay-as-you-go phones are often sold below-cost by US carriers to drive usage, with the side effect that they can be profitably resold across the border. According to Caro Police Chief Ben Page, though, people with Arab names use them as bomb detonators and–I shit you not–make methamphetamines from the batteries.)

Ignoring the real, but unlikely prospect of anomalous purchases resulting in FBI investigations and gloved fingers where they don’t belong, such card data is used internally for various less-than-friendly purposes, such as charging higher prices to consumers the statistical model determines are willing to bear them. This is often rephrased to say that tiered discounts are selectively offered by the computer to specific classes of customers. To the cynical observer, it should come as no surprise that research performed by CASPIAN found everyday pricing at stores with card programs to be 28-71% higher than non-card stores in the same area. All of you behaviorists in the audience will also note that the way to influence consumer behavior is by offering incentives and punishments that drive responses toward a desired goal, not by giving out free rewards for what they’re already doing. (A temporary loss leader might be a good way to hook a normally steadfast customer on a new, more lucrative brand, but giving them a buck off that store-brand milk they buy every Monday isn’t doing you any favors.)

The full scope and discussion of all the ways discount cards screw the average Joe is beyond the scope of this rant, but CASPIAN has a well-researched overview.

Naturally, the real long-term solution to customer-specific pricing is to do away with loyalty card programs entirely. Which, as long as stores believe they are making money from them, izzngunnahappen. In an ideal world, consumers would vote with their feet and wallets, and either resign themselves to paying ridiculous markups on groceries (subsidizing the cardholders), or go out of their ways to shop at non-card stores. Some believe that this is the only way to go, and in that ideal world, they’d be right.

However, most people, myself included, don’t care that much. Even if they disagree with the premise of loyalty cards, it might still beat paying time and a half for groceries (still feeding said system), or driving several towns over to find the nearest non-card store (wasting time and gas, feeding an oil baron or two) in a purist pursuit of their ideals. For these, the least-effort approach is to simply poison the databases until stores notice that their card program is costing more to maintain than it brings in*, and drop the programs. Make this data appear so arbitrary and useless that it doesn’t have value to the Pavlovian marketing douches that perpetuate such things.**

Of course this process is not currently automatic; you still have to find people who give enough of a shit to trade cards with you, and in a convenient manner. Who has time for all that? It would be much more disruptive if this process were automatic. Presented is the means to seamlessly and automatically swap valid card IDs with another user in the area, presenting a different GUID at every purchase. The backend enforcement of a “swap” rather than a “copy”, together with the zip-code rule, may limit efficient heuristic detection of the swap arising from simultaneous hits or geographically impossible usage patterns, etc.*** Alright, it’s certainly no solution, but it’s better than nothing. And it doubles as an LED flashlight.

* Running a loyalty card program, and the infrastructure thereof, is bloody expensive. Stores are not exactly forthcoming with an exact figure, but let’s call this value $k. Installing a card program raises the store’s operating costs from $x to $x+k. Where is that money coming from?

** Sadly(?), the head marketing douches are not stores themselves, but the purveyors of card-loyalty program infrastructure. “You need this. You want this. This’ll help you compete with Wal-Mart.” But the buyer often doesn’t fully understand what it’s doing or why, as evidenced by the number of cashiers who will cheerfully swipe a “house card” if a customer doesn’t have one.

*** As for the DEA/DHS issue, cardswapping may also add plausible deniability to your purchase history, much the same way as having an unsecured wireless connection has gotten the occasional downloader off the hook for allegedly illegal downloads. Possibly a very good thing if the person before you bought 1000 cellphones, and 1000 Ziplock bags to put them in.


One Response to “Staatsgevaarlijke”

  1. One of the interesting things I noticed a while back was that if I tried (just for grins) to scan my Albertson’s card at the Safeway, it wound up being interpreted, _not_ as a club card, but as some sort of weird prescription or pharma item (exclamation mark number one). Even sranger, when I tried to scan my Safeway card at Albertson’s, a similar miscue, also prescription/pharma, occurred (exclamation mark number two).

    Most retailers I’ve encountered will issue you the cards by just handing you them along with a form to fill out. I just use the cards and drop the form in the trash outside the store. No one has ever called me on it yet.

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