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Warning: Your Condom & PopTart Purchases May Come Back to Haunt You
A Razor's Edge Column
by p.l. frank

I went to the grocery store this week. Nothing special. I stood in a very long line without even sighing or rolling my eyes. This isn't so bad, I thought. When I finally reached the young woman in charge of scanning, however, I had to change my mind. My purchase, she informed me with grave concern, would be 20% more expensive if I did not have a card from The Club.

Now, I think this whole business is outrageously unfair. I am not a member of The Club. Furthermore, I have no interest in ever becoming a member and let me tell you why. There exists, as you well know, the truism that in a capitalistic society you cannot get something for nothing. And so it is with these so-called "club memberships" that have sprung up in supermarkets all over the U.S. Now people think they are getting something (great savings on their grocery bills) for nothing (there are no membership dues to join and nothing you have to do to maintain your membership) but they are seriously mistaken. Here is the price one actually pays to be a member of The Club:

(1) Computerized tracking lists of all your weekly purchases.

I don't know about you, but it absolutely creeps me out to know that lists of my purchases are being compiled and tracked. It creeps me out even more to think about some greasy little grocery store clerk somewhere in the back room reviewing and scrutinizing my personal lists of purchases. Maybe he even shares the really good ones with his coworkers: "Hey, check this one out. You know that Mr. Richard Jones who always comes in here on Friday nights? Look at how much Preparation H he buys! No wonder he fidgets around so much when he stands in line." (yuk, yuk, yuk) Or, "Did you know that hot chick Ms. Carol Cherry colors her hair??? And, check it out....that Ms. Sharon Smith buys stuff to remove facial hair and a gallon of Ben and Jerry's every week. She has a mustache? Do you think she's bulimic?"

(2) A Personal Profile is being created about you based on your buying behaviors.

It goes far beyond the checkout clerks at your favorite grocery store knowing the trends and tendencies of your purchases. Oftentimes these stores have purchased computer packages that create a personal profile of you for the purposes of predicting (and thereby manipulating) your future buying behaviors. How much coffee do you buy? How about alcohol? Junk food? Condoms? Home pregnancy tests? Adult diapers? Do you really want people to have your profile? And, what's more, what is to keep your employer or insurance company from accessing it in the future?

(3) Sale of your personal buying habits to marketing departments of companies who make the products you buy.

Well, this is probably the most disturbing outcome of today's computerized tracking of purchases by supermarkets. Remember, in order to become a member of The Club you often need to complete an application listing your home address and telephone number as well as your driver's license number and the name and address of your employer. A friend of mine who is a Club Member recently began receiving postcards from various companies thanking him for buying their brand of deodorant and toothpaste. No coupons for money off on future purchases. Just an acknowledgment that they knew the purchases had been made.

What's next? Postcards saying, "We've noticed from your purchases you must be having a heavy flow lately. Have you considered buying our Super Absorbency line?" Or, how about notices saying, "We hope you have enjoyed your weekly purchases of our bean dips. Did you know we also offer a line of anti-flatulence products including our Super Fast Gas Burner that let's you quiet the storm while still eating all your favorite foods?"

Where is all of this going to go? There are still so many untapped possibilities. How about organizations like MADD or Alcoholics Anonymous sending you notices in response to your alcoholic beverage purchases? Or how about postcards from Weight Watchers or your local exercise club in response to your weekly purchases of Oreos and SlimFast? Perhaps a line or two from your local health clinic after your purchase of vaginal cream for a yeast infection. Scary.

Better yet, what if these computerized Club profiles start being used in a court of law? Future lawsuits for divorce and child custody cases, car accidents, you name it, could soon hinge on a person's personal profile of buying behavior at the local supermarket. Just think of it. The possibilities are endless. You could prove bad parenting practices by using your ex-mate's purchase history of too much junk food and not enough veggies. Proof of your spouse's regular purchases of canned chili and navy bean soup, for instance, could be definite grounds for divorce.

The ability to embarrass, humiliate, and discredit someone is all out there now in the personal profile of one's shopping behaviors. The blackmail possibilities are endless. All that is needed is the threat of a subpoena for your records from the local Piggly Wiggly.

Okay, okay. Maybe I'm being paranoid. Maybe nobody really cares that much. Maybe in the bigger scheme of things it does not matter who knows what you buy. All right, fine. But I'm telling you something....someday I am going to hear that someone is being asked to submit their Groceries-R-Us profile with their resume before being considered for employment, a raise, or promotion. Or maybe it will be required to run your SuperMarket Profile in conjunction with your credit report to be considered for renting an apartment or receiving an auto or home loan. When that day comes you just remember that I tried to warn you: the Food and Sundry Police mean trouble.

If you insist on becoming a Club Member, at least do like the Phen-Fen, Vali um and Prozac freaks do: Rotate. Get multiple memberships at several different supermarket chains and shop at a different one each week. If possible, use an assumed name. You've got to protect yourself, afterall. You certainly don't want your red meat, Doritos, and National Enquirer purchases to influence The-Right-Way-of-Doing-Things-Committee some day. If you cannot resist getting your fair share of the supermarket savings, at least remember this: Once you become a Club Member, all of your condom and PopTart purchases become part of your Permanent Record. Maybe you can borrow a friend's Membership card for these purchases.

b i o
P.L. Frank enjoys writing both nonfiction social satire and funny, thought-provoking novels.  Dr. Frank has been a researcher in the field of Behavioral and Social Sciences since 1983, and has worked as a university professor and therapist. 

The writer of this article welcomes your comments: