Unintended Consdequences of Lightwieght Activism

About a year ago I took a stand against membership cards. I found out today that my small act of rebellion changed the policies of a major corporation, derailed one of it's marketing campaigns, and got someone fired.

The relatively recent rash of "membership cards" at virtually every retail store was troubling to me. On a superficial level, I was annoyed at having to carry all of these cards just to get the ordinary price. It was clear to me that, rather than enabling "discounts" these cards actually just warded off penalties - non-carriers are penalized for not having one, or not presenting it. On a deeper level, I knew the true purpose of these cards and it bothered me: they give the store a valuable database not only of personal contact details, but also behavior data. You are what you buy, and these companies can learn a lot about you from your spending habits. While the use of this information would normally be innocuous, it frightens me. At no time in history were such complete records possible to keep on a such a wide scale. It's not clear how they can be misused.

One day, while at the local Ralph's, it occurred to me that I could solve both concerns at once. I could register a card with a fake name and address, an easy-to-remember phone number (562 500 5000), and then encourage others to use that phone number as well. This was an act of lightweight activism. And today I found that it was far more successful than I hoped. Indeed, it got someone fired.

According to Mary, my checkout clerk today, around 30 people at the one store were using the number. It was directly because of this, according to her, that they discontinued the free gas initiative. And finally, a checkout clerk was fired for suggesting that a customer who had forgotten their card use the number. She said all of this with a quivering lip, and was obviously very angry with me. "So YOU are the one who registered that number!" she began accusingly.

(Of all the accusations I found the "free gas was discontinued because of you" the most interesting. I put a fake name, "Guy Faux" and a fake address "123 Main St. Seal Beach" so I never received anything from Ralphs. I suppose if they just printed unnamed vouchers some lucky person at or near that address was getting a lot of free gas. I expected the mail to get returned to sender.)

I too am angry that someone got fired over this, but for very different reasons. The clerk got fired for helping a customer. That's just wrong. I can totally understand that the company does not want it's employees systematically undermining any system, no matter how ill-concieved. But to fire someone over this? Why isn't Mary angry with management? They are the ones who did the firing! Heck, I never told any of the clerks to share the number. It just sort of caught on.

An act of rebellion, someone lost their job, many people protected their privacy for a short time, a random person got free gas. All of this because I picked a fake number and encouraged a few people to use it. Wow. What a strange world we live in.

For the record, I advocate doing away with these ridiculous cards entirely. Places like Trader Joe's need to be commended for not imposing on their customers like this. If you agree you can act by doing something like what I did, but perhaps on a smaller scale. Figuring out what the public needs and wants should be up to the "feel" of the store manager, not the output of an OLAP data center that then dispatches impersonal orders around the globe.


Impulse said...

So it doesn't work at Ralph's anymore then?

I'll try it at Best Buy this weekend.

josh said...

They did indeed cancel that number at Ralphs (and Pavillions which is a subsidary). I re-registered under the same name with 562 500 5001. I figure I'll increment if they cancel me again.

I actually never registered the number with Best Buy. Feel free to do so.