Do loyalty cards really hurt poor people?


Kevin Drum doesn’t like loyalty cards. I agree, I don’t either. Obviously the only reason stores want you to have loyalty cards is so they can track your purchases and figure out additional ways to make money off of you.

But Drum wants to argue that unlike other sorts of price discrimination, retail loyalty cards disproportionately harm poor people:

I earn enough that I can decline to use loyalty cards just because it bugs me to think that anyone with money can buy a detailed history of everything I buy. But you know who can’t afford to do that? Poor people. In practice, they don’t have the same choice I do. Even if they don’t like having their purchases tracked, they simply can’t afford to pay the artificially jacked-up prices that supermarkets charge anyone without a loyalty card. (What? You think supermarkets just lower the loyalty price and leave it at that? They don’t. Non-loyalty prices go up to compensate.) So they’re basically forced to share vast amounts of personal data even if they don’t want to.

What’s weird to me about this is that Drum thinks that college tuition price discrimination is okay: Rich people pay full price, middle-class folks get loans, and poor people get grants based on income. But isn’t the price for these benefits the same? To get financial aid, you have to give colleges vast amounts of personal information, including tax returns, information about the value of home, and so on. You have to give them way more information than you give the grocery store when you get a loyalty card. If it’s not okay to give personal information to get grocery store discounts, why is it okay to give personal information to get tuition breaks?

Don’t get me wrong, I agree with Drum that loyalty cards suck. I agree that it sucks that we have to give lots of personal information out in order to save money. But poor people have to do this in pretty much all aspects of their lives: to qualify for food stamps, or Medicaid, or Social Security Disability, or housing assistance, or energy assistance. You name it, poor people have to give that information away. Rich people don’t.

cf: Mitt Romney.

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4 Responses to Do loyalty cards really hurt poor people?

  1. Kevin Drum says:

    I think you’re misunderstanding my complaint. I’m not concerned with the *application* info people have to turn over. I don’t think it’s all that intrusive in either the college case or the loyalty card case, and anyway, it’s a one-time thing and the data doesn’t end up in a gigantic marketing database available to anyone willing to pay for it.

    My concern is with the ongoing collection of purchasing data. The college case has nothing like that. Unlike the application information, the purchasing history data is ongoing, enormous, extremely intrusive, can be used for profiling in potentially appalling ways, and is available to anyone for a price. This is what poor people are essentially forced to agree to because they really can’t afford to pay non-loyalty prices for their groceries.

  2. dave says:

    Sure, but interestingly, I’m not sure the profiling thing hurts poor people as much as it hurts middle/upper income folks. What grocery stores learn from poor peoples’ loyalty cards is that they don’t have much money and therefore they are not worth investing the company’s marketing resources in. What they really want is the information about middle- and upper-income customers.

    To me the bigger problem for the poor is the constant requirement that they prove they are poor. I think this acts as a not-so-subtle reinforcement of the idea that poverty is ingrained and intractable. That’s what really harms poor people.

  3. AMac says:

    > I don’t think it [the application info people have to turn over] is all that intrusive in either the college case or the loyalty card case…

    Strange. I’ve heard lots of things said about the FAFSA and CSS PROFILE college-aid applications, but “not all that intrusive” — that’s a first.

  4. Bill Carroll says:

    Why stop at financial aid forms in your comparison? Add credit cards, mortgages, or any one who lends you money and expects to be paid back. Loyalty programs are more relevant than ever before and to try and create some collusion between the 2 sounds ludicrous.

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