The Checkout

Fat Wallets, Slim Satisfaction

Reader Ken Roberts of Arlington recently wrote to complain about his fat wallet. The problem: It's gotten unwieldy thanks to all the customer loyalty stores from several grocery stores, the bookstore, pet store, drugstore, shoe store, sports-equipment store. etc. As Roberts said: "My wallet isn't that big." Besides, he added, "I'm always trying to simplify my life, so even one extra card bothers me."

Roberts asked: "Wouldn't it be nice if they could all be combined onto one card. Rather than handing out new cards, stores could gather your card information and add the info to their database--maybe give you a little sticker for your card so you can keep track of which programs you belong to."

Roberts' request doesn't surprise David Hogan, senior vice president and chief information offier of the National Retail Federation, the trade association for all kinds of stores. In fact, Hogan said, he agrees with Roberts. He said he gets so frustrated with all the loyalty cards that stores hand out that he doesn't carry any. His wife, on the other hand, has a keychain full of them.

Hogan said the problem is "retailers are very passionate about retaining existing customers and generating new ones" and they believe their own individual store cards are the way to achieve those two goals. However, he said he believes that one day soon there will be a cooperative loyalty card where retailers join together to give customers rewards at multiple stores. The card may also be used as a credit card, creating a rival perhaps to Visa and MasterCard. There's already one such card in the United Kingdom (the Nectar card) and "the potential is there" for one in the U.S. "I do see it on the horizon," Hogan said.

So Mr. Roberts, keep your fingers crossed. Maybe your wallet won't have to be like the explosive one that George Costanza carried around (remember, Seinfeld called it a walking "filing cabinet" under half of George's rump). Someday, hopefully soon, there may be a slim wallet in your future.

By  |  September 7, 2006; 6:30 AM ET Marketing
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While one card sure does sound convenient, I'm not sure that I want all of my grocery, drugstore, book store, etc. purchases in one database. I suspect that the National Retail Federation would love to get their hands on a comprehensive list of everyone's purchases, however, so they can figure out even more ways to pursuade us to buy. Or am I naive to believe that each store's "loyalty card" database isn't linked up already?

Posted by: dc | September 7, 2006 8:03 AM

I seem to recall my parents had a "loyalty" card in the '50s thru '70s. I think it was called the Washington(ian) Card. The card, which acted like a charge card also, included about a half dozen stores or so, like Hecht's, Woodward & Lothrup and others I can't recall now. It fell out of favor but now may be this type of card is ready for a comeback.

Posted by: Mike Thomas | September 7, 2006 8:55 AM

At most grocery stores and at CVS you can enter your phone number instead of swiping the card. That's what I do!

Posted by: amy | September 7, 2006 8:57 AM

I have a keychain devoted just to the mini, key chain versions of these. I can unhook it from my main set of keys if I want, but it takes up very little extra space in my pocket. I must be a genius for figuring this out.

Posted by: bkp | September 7, 2006 9:08 AM

When it opened White Flint Mall had its own credit card for all its stores.

Posted by: Steve | September 7, 2006 9:12 AM

Hello - Yikes and gripes! Last time I checked, there is not a single store that forces any customer to use their loyalty card. The program is voluntary and if Ken doesn't want to carry the card, then don't!

Posted by: Richmond, VA | September 7, 2006 9:44 AM

Yes the programs are voluntary, but then you can't get the sale prices. So the choice is the inconvience of the card or 3 to 20% (depending on your shopping habits) higher grocery store/drug store bills.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 7, 2006 9:56 AM

Anyone who wants to make their wallets slimmer then check out the following sites. It allows you to "Put all of your club cards onto just one card."

Just put in the barcodes numbers from your loyalty cards and the site will generate a single card with all your card numbers which you can use to scan at the grocery stores.

Posted by: wg | September 7, 2006 10:02 AM

"Hello - Yikes and gripes! Last time I checked, there is not a single store that forces any customer to use their loyalty card. The program is voluntary and if Ken doesn't want to carry the card, then don't!"

Last time I checked, there is not a single blog that forces you to read it. It's voluntary and if you don't like the gripes, don't read them!

Posted by: Anonymous | September 7, 2006 10:20 AM

Ken, unless you don't keep a stocked fridge, not having a grocery store card can easily cost you an extra $20+ per trip because you won't get "card holder discounts". This business model is being adopted by an increasing number of retailers including drug/variety stores such as CVS, PetCo/PetSmart, etc. so if you want to patronize such places you need to register for a card to take advantage of many discounts. Now, if you make so much that that extra dough doesn't matter to you, then congrats, but to most people that can make a big difference.

With the corporate homoginization of America - meaning increasingly, retail markets are being taken over by chains so that any one shopping place in our country looks just like any other with Best Buy, Cheesecake Factory, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Barnes & Noble, PetSmart, etc, etc. - consumers have less and less options to not sign up for these plans and give their business to a local retailer unless they want to pay inflated prices that would be "discounted" if only they had a card. (And before some troll calls me on it - I realize not all the businesses I listed use discount cards - yet - but would it be that surprising if they started?)

Posted by: Rosslyn | September 7, 2006 10:33 AM

dc - you are a bit naive. I used to work for a store chain that had a club card, and the major reason why they did so was not customer loyalty building - it was to track shopping habits, and also as an aide to track stock and ordering of product.

Posted by: GP - DC | September 7, 2006 11:01 AM

Why do you carry all of them all the time anyway? I keep all my credit cards locked up in a file cabinet at home. Each card is inside a manila folder with the monthly statements, if there are any. I only take one out IF I intend to go to a particular store and use it. This method also cuts down on the temptation to whip out the plastic every 10 minutes. The only cards I carry in my wallet are my gasoline credit card and my Giant card in case I need to make a quick stop for groceries. I do recall back in the 1960's - 1970's there was a Central Charge card for Washington stores where you could use the same card at several department stores.

Posted by: Southern Maryland | September 7, 2006 11:11 AM

Southern Maryland - that's great if you plan all of your shopping trips in advance, but I'm the type that will often make an unplanned visit to a store while I'm out running other errands so that doesn't help.

Also, people keep bringing up the old Washington-area charge card. It was called the "Washington Shopping Plate" and was covered in numerous articles last week when Hecht's closed - I believe it was the last remaining place where it could be used.

Posted by: Rosslyn | September 7, 2006 11:47 AM

Rosslyn - That's the price you pay for making unplanned visits. A little planning ahead of time can save you money. Don't want to plan? Then carry all the cards and don't complain about having to carry them in your wallet.

Posted by: AH | September 7, 2006 11:51 AM

GP - I don't buy the line that they use it as an "aid to track stock and ordering of product". They can do that when they scan the item at the checkout register - all the card does it take it a step further so they can link what is being sold to who is buying it.

Posted by: Rosslyn | September 7, 2006 11:56 AM

AH - read my post again - I never complained about carrying cards in my wallet. I too use my phone number if I don't have one with me so that's not really an issue. I was merely pointing out that keeping all of your cards in a manilla folder and pulling only the ones out you need when you go shopping only works when you plan all your trips (and are obsessively organized). That is probably fine in a rural area, but in a densely urban area like mine you can pass 50 stores on your way home from just about anywhere, so no, I don't feel the need to plan out every single shopping trip, and sometimes I realize I need something while at work and stop off on the way home.

Posted by: Rosslyn | September 7, 2006 12:09 PM

Why carry cards? I sign up for a new one every time I go to the store, using a different fake name each time. I use it once and then toss it in a pile at home. I have several hundred each of Safeway and Giant cards. There's no way I'm going to let these stores track my purchasing.

Posted by: Jack O'Lantern | September 7, 2006 12:10 PM

But do you need every one of those cards every day? Grocery store, drug store, bookstore I keep with me. The 3 times a year I go to DSW or the sporting-goods place, I grab the card and stuff it in my pocket.

Posted by: John | September 7, 2006 12:31 PM

I work part time in retail at a store that has a loyalty card. We, like many other stores, can look up customers in our store specific database. We don't actually need the card. The only store I know of that requires a loyalty card is Wegman's and only when you write a check.

I do have one customer in my store, an elderly man, who simply took an index card and wrote down all his loyalty card numbers. It is much easier to carry one little 3x5 index card than 20+ grocery, drugstore, card shop, fast food loyalty cards.

Posted by: Duke | September 7, 2006 12:32 PM

Rosslyn -- Yes, most shopping trips are planned in advance. The closest stores of any kind are 5 miles from my house. There is only one 'junior' department store in my County called Peebles. It's sort of like Hechts only it doesn't carry housewares, luggage, furniture or appliances. We have no book stores except one used book store here. No Home Depot or Lowes. Only two Hallmark card stores. For any big shopping excursions I have to drive to Waldorf 25 miles to the north, or California, MD 25 miles to the south. Our biggest retailers are Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Giant, Safeway and Food Lion. The rest are smaller Mom and pop stores, chain restaurants, or auto repair places. We've actually entered the 21st century as we have two Starbucks stores and one Taco Bell.
Actually, I hate shopping with a passion so I must be missing a female gene or two. I only shop when I absolutely have to. Same goes for telephones. I don't own a cell phone and I refuse to get one.
My provisions, usually bacon, flour and salt are bought from Giant, when I load up the Conastoga wagon for the cattle drive.

Posted by: Southern Maryland | September 7, 2006 12:41 PM

Hey, WG-

Love the site: you recommended. Very slick. I've made my own 'supercard' and will try it out soon.

Posted by: Barney | September 7, 2006 12:47 PM

I wish that stores would simply hand out cards without requiring you to provide personal details. Of course, many require this information to speed up the use of personal checks, but for those of us who pay in cash or credit, there should be zero reason for the store to know who I am. I don't want their junk mail.

Perhaps the best thing is to enter a random phone number at checkout, find someone else's lost card and use it, or feign forgetfulness and hope that the cashier will use the default card.

Posted by: Jason | September 7, 2006 1:01 PM

Southern MD - I figured as much. I used to live on the eastern shore so it's a different story when you have to drive some ways to where you shop and not being organized and knowing what you need can mean wasted gas, time, and money.

Hey, don't forget beans - they keep for a long time and have lots of energy for those long wagon rides!

Posted by: Rosslyn | September 7, 2006 1:03 PM

That reminds me -- I have to call a tree service to get a load of far-wood to keep the cabin warm this winter.

Posted by: Southern Maryland | September 7, 2006 1:17 PM

I'm not rich, but I don't use loyalty cards. Do you realize how much information can be accumulated about you based on the products you buy? Maybe I'm a paranoid, but we've all lost too much privacy already.

Posted by: eb | September 7, 2006 1:39 PM

I get tired off being hounded to buy a member discount card everytime I go to Barnes and Noble.

Posted by: JG | September 7, 2006 1:40 PM

Rather than carry around all the cards, I put my cards in an envelope I keep in the glove compartment. That way I always have them with me and I can pull out the one I need at the store.

Posted by: Lt | September 7, 2006 2:07 PM

Yeah, bkp, you're a real genius. I guess everyone else who does that saw you doing it first.

Posted by: D'oh! | September 7, 2006 3:17 PM

" Do you realize how much information can be accumulated about you based on the products you buy?"

So what, really? I don't mean to provoke, I just want to know how this could really harm me. What can they really do, send me targeted coupons or something? I ignore and tune out 99% of advertising. I'm not always buying products for myself anyway. If they truly think they are building a real picture of "who I am" as a consumer, then I get the last laugh. It's like those recommendations you get from Amazon based on your previous purchases. They are usually wildly off base because I mostly buy things from Amazon to mail to my mom.

I am careful about many things but I can't see that much harm in a company knowing that I buy a certain brand of toothpaste or how many times I buy it each month. If you buy something you don't want anyone to know about, then separate it out and don't use your card for that purchase.

Posted by: Jane | September 7, 2006 3:22 PM

I agree with Jane. A female friend and I made a run to Giant to pick up some last-minute picnic food, and I let her put a couple of items for her baby on my bill and used my discount card. For months afterwards, I got "checkout coupons" for Enfamil and diapers. The cashier, who knows I am an openly gay male, joined me in a good laugh.

Posted by: Smart Shopper | September 7, 2006 3:46 PM

If anyone got hold of your cancelled checks they could pretty much write a profile of your family, your spending habits, chronic health problems, magazine subscriptions, interests, whatever, just by looking at the amounts and payees for your checks. "60 Minutes" did a story on this years ago. They had someone look at the cancelled checks of a family written over several months and could do a very concise description of that family including religion because they wrote checks for tuition to a private Catholic school. They could even describe the wife because stores used to copy a description from your driver's license when you wrote a check.

Anyway -- why do I care if a store knows I buy a certain brand of toothpaste or detergent or food? I've got nothing to hide and if they do send coupons I could either use them to save money or trash them. No big deal. One catalog I bought from asked for a birthdate (month and day) and sent me a savings coupon as a birthday reward. I'm not as paranoid as some.

Some people have their own websites with complete physical descriptions, photos in various states of undress, resume, and blood type, then they get touchy about buying groceries. Crikey!

Posted by: BB | September 7, 2006 4:03 PM

This problem has been on my mind a while, too, since more stores with loyalty cards have made sale prices exclusive to their clubs' members. I also considered putting all my loyalty barcodes on one card, and the site wg recommended does the trick! Until now, I've also been just using my phone number, but it's good someone thought of a quick, free app that allows you to make Just One Club Card. I also pondered the one-barcode system, but the possibility of one uber-database where all my purchases from all stores are tracked is a little more freaky than the each store keeping the same database separately. Call me paranoid.

Posted by: BNLight | September 7, 2006 4:32 PM

I despise "loyalty cards". I have a stack of them -- all in different names -- and none of them is mine. I am "loyal" to lots of things in this life, but grocery/drug/whatever stores are not one of them. Yes, I don't get the "offers" in the mail -- whatever they amount to--, but I suspect I can live well without them. I put up with the cards to get the routine price breaks, but I try to swap around the cards & otherwise defeat their efforts to build an identifiable data-base to the best of my ability. My hope for all of these businesses is that their accursed databases get raided, corrupted, and munged.

Posted by: out-of-synch | September 7, 2006 8:05 PM

The only problem with making up IDs to use with these cards is remembering what phone number I used. I try to stick with a common one, (703) 691-2131, but it has been taken at several retailers. A friend has all of his set to (202) 456-1414 -- try it!

Posted by: Lester Burnham | September 7, 2006 9:33 PM

"Anyway -- why do I care if a store knows I buy a certain brand of toothpaste or detergent or food? I've got nothing to hide and if they do send coupons I could either use them to save money or trash them."

The fear is not that stores will know what toothpaste you buy. The fear is that for whatever Patriot Act-fueled reason some government wonk is putting together a profile of you as an anarchist because you buy too much posterboard, too many black sharpies, and you own the DVD of Bowling for Columbine.

Posted by: Harry | September 8, 2006 7:44 AM

I am curious to find out if anyone tried the service at site:

This looks very interesting.

Posted by: Jarret | September 8, 2006 10:38 AM

Here is a new solution that also reduces the cost of processing transactions at the point-of-sale.

Posted by: CET | September 8, 2006 11:18 AM

I avoid loyalty cards as much as possible. First, I avoid stores that require loyalty cards. I shop at Shoppers Food Warehouse and Rite Aid instead of Giant and CVS. Second, if I have to buy at a particular store, I minimize the purchases. For instance, I have a Petsmart card for cat food and their house brand of cat litter, but often buy aquarium supplies from a specialist store near my home. Third, the DSW and Hallmark loyalty cards aren't carried with me because I have no business making impulse purchases there anyway. It isn't a big deal if I lose a few points buying a birthday card elsewhere. Loyalty cards do not make me loyal, they just encourage me to find other options.

If I ever have to get a grocery store card, the fake name idea sounds great. But can more than one person use the number for calling the time lady?

Posted by: WMA | September 8, 2006 12:02 PM

To keep my wallet skinny, I use this nifty accordion card container. I found it in the coupon circular that comes in my Sunday newspaper.

Posted by: Nicole | September 8, 2006 9:44 PM

I've done the "fake info" to get my loyalty cards but then hate carrying the cards around with me. And of course I don't recall what fake phone number I've supplied in order for my loyalty account to be looked up.

So now I instead just ask another shopper if I can borrow their card. They always say yes (especially as there are often rewards associated with cumulative spends).

Works for me and I sometimes make a new freind :-)

Posted by: Atlanta | September 11, 2006 12:24 PM

The first time I saw loyalty cards raer their ugly heads in this area was when Giant adopted them several years back. Even though I literally lived across the street from a Safeway, I was a loyal Giant shopper then, both because the local store was 24-hour (I'm a nightowl) and because the prices (pre-Ahold) were the lowest among the three or four major chains. Once Giant made their announcement I fired off an irate letter explaining the above and telling them that I had no interest whatsoever in supplying my personal info or having my purchases tracked for marketing purposes, and that henceforth I would no longer shop there.

I was surprised about a week later when I received an envelope containing a Giant loyalty card and a letter from a customer-service lady explaining that supplying my personal info was totally voluntary and not necessary to receive the discount card, and that the enclosed card was generic and not linked to my name, address, etc.

Of course, without any personal data attached to the card, I'm not eligible for some of those loyalty programs like "Apples for the Classroom" and the like, and if I lose the card or forget to tote it with me to the store then I can't key in my phone number to get the discounts. But hey, I'm still a proud possessor of a "stealth" Giant loyalty card. (Which means little now that Giant's prices have gone stratospheric and forced me to start shopping at the Safeway across the street. I no longer fear for my privacy, though--my sister lives about a mile away and I just key in her phone number for the benefits!)

By the way, I have NEVER set foot in a Food Lion precisely because of their loyalty-card program, and never will. CVS has lost my business for the same reason. And I'm about to write off Petsmart as well. Who needs the hassle?

Posted by: KR20852 | September 11, 2006 2:03 PM

In response to Jarret--
Printed out my own card last night and tried it at Harris Teeter. Worked like a charm.

Posted by: Ken in Arlington | September 12, 2006 7:23 AM

Jane and others who don't care who knows what they buy:

Say you buy alcohol, cigarettes, junk food--if that info is linked to you, you could be refused health insurance coverage for liver, lung, or obesity problems. Just an example. It's a real threat. Insurance companies don't want to cover your health problems and would love to blame your actions for your conditions.

Posted by: Anon | September 15, 2006 8:51 PM

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