Supermarket Club Cards

        When Robert Rivera slipped on some spilled yogurt in a Vons store and shattered his knee, he sued Vons.  In a pre-trial settlement hearing, Vons’ lawyer informed Rivera that his shopping habits might become part of the trial.  Specifically, the lawyer mentioned the fact that Rivera frequently bought liquor.  Vons claimed they knew this from the statements of store clerks who saw Rivera buying liquor, but Rivera said this was unlikely because he didn’t shop at any single Vons store very often.  More likely, Vons knew about Rivera’s shopping habits from information on his club card record.  Rivera lost his suit against Vons (CBS 2 News, 1999).

        A club card member at any typical supermarket can save up to 10 or 12 percent on grocery purchases.  In return, the cardholder gives the store a convenient method for keeping track of his or her buying behavior.  By knowing what each shopper is most likely to buy, the store can maximize its profits.  Vons, Safeway, Ralphs, and other supermarkets say they don’t share your personal information with anyone else, yet all of these supermarket chains are clients of Catalina Marketing, a firm in Florida.  Catalina Marketing claims to track the activity of 156 million shoppers every week, and has no qualms about sharing its information with retailers, manufacturers, or anyone who wants to know what you’re buying (CBS 2 News, 1999).

        For many people, the club card discount is worth the loss of privacy.  But what would happen if your health insurance company bought your shopping profile and decided that you eat, drink, or smoke too much?  Your insurer could raise your premium or cancel your coverage altogether (McCune, 1999).  It may seem unlikely now, but the Internet is rapidly connecting previously separate databases of personal information.  The result of this desegregation of data is an increasingly accurate and powerful profile of each individual (Tanaka, 1999).

        Fortunately, the club card situation will soon change for the better.  On October 4, 1999, California Governor Gray Davis signed Senate Bill 926, the Supermarket Club Card Disclosure Act of 1999.  This act will require supermarkets to obtain written authorization from a customer to “collect, distribute, aggregate or market” any personal information, with violations punishable by a fine.  The act will become operative on July 1, 2000.  The history and text of this bill can be read here:[].

        For some examples of the information requested on club card applications, see these pages:
Ralphs Club Card:
Dick's Savings Club Card:
Big Y Express Savings Club Card:

        The CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) Web site is a good resource for privacy information related to club cards.  It is located at

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Computers and the Web                                                                                 Last updated December 8, 1999
Supermarket Club Cards
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