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A grocery store story (analogy)

I like to shop at my local grocery store; it’s convenient – only a block up the street, the prices are good, and they offer great specials in addition to having many things I cannot find at any other local store. But last month, they decided that they will not allow people to enter their store without filling out a customer card that includes one’s real name, home address, email address, and telephone number.

Now they tell me that giving them this information will allow them to serve me better by tracking my purchases, how and when I use coupons, how and when I choose to use various payment methods, and of course, using all of this to recommend to me (a) things I may like, (b) specials I may not be aware of, (c) introduce new offerings to me, and (d) other ways of using data I generate to further customize and tailor my shopping experience.

They also tell me that, unfortunately, should I not choose to cooperate, I will need to shop elsewhere; my business and presence will no longer be welcome at their store.

I am certain you understand my upset and annoyance at this development; they are, after all, only a block from my house. They have the best pricing, and all the other things I mentioned at the beginning of this story. But I do not want them focusing this hard on what I do or how I do it, and I really don’t want them making me all kinds of unsolicited commercial offerings, even if/when they think they’re “helping me”; I have more than enough information to wade through every day, I have my own way of managing my shopping, I do not wish to change it, and I do not think I should have to do so.

So, yes, I refused to fill out their customer card and took my business elsewhere.

Even though I now have to go two miles each way to the new store.

Even though I now pay more for my groceries and other items.

Even though I now do not get many of the specials, and yes…

Even though I have also lost access to the things only available at my previous store.

There’s only one problem, apparently the store I now shop also thinks the customer card is a necessary part of their business; they cannot really compete with the offerings of my first store and they’re already competitively disadvantaged (further away, higher pricing, fewer specials, and limited product availability). So they, too, meet me one day at the store entrance with a similar card and similar demands. As previously, I refuse pretty much for the same reasons.

Now I’m going seven miles each way to yet another store, spending more for my groceries, have lost double-couponing, and product offerings are barely comparable. But they’re right, I still have options; I guess I should be happy for at least this much.

* * *

It’s been about six months and today, I was met at the door of my grocer by a very kind employee who told me they were bringing a new offering to their customers that allows them to offer better products and services. I sighed as I looked at the basic sign-up card I had rejected at two previous grocery stores and quietly explained to the employee why I was not interested any more today than I had been at the other stores; then, I returned to my car and turned on the Magellean to find the closest grocery store from my current location.

I spent some time looking for options, but the only stores within 25 miles are of my initial three options are now requiring my information and the only store still not using the program is eighty miles from my house. Sighing, I call them to set up a “will call” pick up for a month’s supply of groceries next week, but they tell me that they’re going out of business before then; apparently, their distributor is cutting them off for refusing to participate in the consumer identification program, something about perferential status for working to lower risk and liability.

I return home and visit my neighbor to request borrowing a few slices of bread and some balogna to make a dinner sandwich. They laugh at me and ask me to go get my own at the grocery store up the block. I explain that I’m not welcome there because I won’t give them my customer information. My neighbor laughs at me and calls me “needlessly concerned” and asks me “So what do you have to hide, anyway?” before waving me off to “go find a store that doesn’t require it… but good luck with that!”

They’re right, of course; none of the grocery stores will sell to you unless you give them your customer information as well as permission to track your choices, habits, and preferences.

It is at this point that I realize that the choice, quite literally, has become “submit or starve”; while I know I cannot possibly be the only one in this position, it sure looks that way because everyone in my neighborhood either doesn’t care about being surveilled like this or (more likely, I think) doesn’t understand what they’ve given up for the convenience of getting what they want just on the next block.

* * *

It’s been two years, and I’ve gotten pretty good at gardening; I gather rotted fruit and vegetables from the local farmer’s market dumpster each weekend and carefully clean and prepare the seeds. I discovered that grocery store dumpsters only hold genetically sterile fruits and vegetables; I’d call that poetic, but it just seems sad. I barter for yeast and ingredients to make breads and for meats with my neighbors; I trade writing services and research for them. Funny how life happens, sometimes.

And I find that my right to decide where the boundary of privacy is maintained is pretty well undone; Everyone keeps telling me, “Don’t like it, don’t use it”, but they seem blind to the reality that “not using it” isn’t really an option when the providers have a policy of requiring it to access their offerings. What they’re really saying, I think, is, “I don’t care about this and if you do, then I don’t care about you.”

The sad part? I saw this coming three years ago. I told everyone I had any contact with at all about it and about how and why market forces of competition would make it all but requisite. And they said the same thing to me then as they say now, “Don’t like it? Don’t use it.” They told me that only people who “have something to hide” or who “want to do bad things” even care about their privacy. They told me that being tracked and turned into revenue for the companies running these stores “wasn’t a big deal”. They told me it was going to happen whether I liked it or not and I guess they were right about that, too; they kind of made sure it happened by not caring until it was the only possible thing that could happen.

I’d ask, “Now what?” but it seems kind of silly, doesn’t it?

Posted in Activism, Creative Writing.