Wednesday, July 05, 2006


I got together with the kids this weekend and gave them the exquisite pleasure of busting my chops.

"I see you've got an EZPass," my son remarked.

"Yes, with your grandmother living downstate now, I finally gave in," I said.

"So," he nodded, "you don't want 'them' to know what groceries you buy, but you don't mind if 'they' know where you go and when?"

Hmm. Okay. Yes, I've railed against Price Chopper's discount card that tracks your purchases. And yet here I was leaving an electronic record of each time and place I drive through an EZPass booth.

I muttered something about everyone having a set of limits or something and left him smirking, but I thought it over on the way home -- a four-hour drive that, as it happens, involved not one single EZPass booth.

To begin with, we do each have our own limits. I think I'd feel differently if Price Chopper had a "marketing sample club" that anyone could join, and which offered a three-percent discount across the board. But I object to the way they advertise prices on the assumption that, yes, of course you have one of their cards. When they say bananas are 23 cents a pound, of course that's for their buddies only, but everyone is one of their buddies, right? It's not really bait-and-switch, because they DO specify "with Advantage card."

I guess I object to the assumption that we're all willing to be tracked and that giving up your privacy is completely normal and banal.

Privacy should be the default. If I choose to give it up, fine. But I'm insulted by the notion that I ought to, and by the assumption that I will.

Especially since I give it up all the time, willingly. You don't have to pay me.

Which brings us to the second part of the answer, which is that EZPass isn't the same as the Price Chopper card. Yes, they could use it to track my movements, but they could subpoena my credit card or cell phone records and achieve the same thing. You'd have to live on a cash basis if you really wanted privacy.

All EZPass is, really, is a way to use a card without stopping. There's no discount -- just the chance to avoid fumbling for change and to avoid sitting in the line at the staffed booth. Basically, the same sort of "convenience" benefit you get whenever you use a debit or credit card.

All of which Sonny Boy knows. He just gets a kick out of giving the old man some grief.

But let's go back to Price Chopper a minute. What's wrong with them wanting to track how various demographic groups shop?

For one thing, by offering specific bargains, they're spoiling the sample, unless their goal is to find out how various demographic groups respond to a 10 cent discount on bananas. An across the board discount for those who agree to be part of the study would be more valuable for purposes of sampling -- and it might increase shopper loyalty because (A) we'd think we were saving money overall and (B) we'd feel we were part of a special group and were getting special treatment.

Would I accept the card under those circumstances? I'd be more likely to if all they wanted was my age, income, ZIP Code and marital status -- but not my name or specific address. But if they were also going to mail me notices of special offers, well, gosh ... we all have our price.

Wrote the guy who wants his own work on password-protected sites, but gets pissed and closes out of a site when he's asked to register.

(The illustration is from Hilary Price's brilliant strip, "Rhymes With Orange," and is dated Oct 11, 2000. If you can't read it, click on it and it opens in a separate window and will be a little bigger.)


Teacher in VT said...

Your missing the point of the store's perspective if you think that they just care to see if you want to save 10 cents on grapes (they'd just use a coupon if that's all they cared about). By using the card, they can compare your full purchase and see that you buy grapes along with what other items.

My initial take is that I would want them to realize they have customers like me so they don't stock all the shelves with wonderbread and fluff when I need sandwhich fixin's. (Similar to my argument about stealing music which is that if everyone steals your fav band's cd and kids buy the new Britney Spears, which type of music will be produced more?)

The internal conflict I have with this is that the store probably says if we can show he's saving 3 bucks on cherries, these are the staple items he'll also buy so we can raise those a couple cents and break even.

Luckily, shopping at the co-op keeps me from having to play these games (it's a different mindset when you look at prices in a store and know that if they make a profit, they'll send you a check at the end of the year).

Mike said...

Good points. Though you shouldn't get too comfortable about your current situation. I remember belonging to a co-op out in Colorado in the 70s where we had long discussions about caving in and carrying Fruit Leather and the forerunners of Energy Bars. We let them in and, the next thing we knew, there was non-turbinado sugar on the shelves.

I guess we got co-opted.

I also remember my last Ben & Jerry's shareholder meeting, where they proposed a poison pill to prevent a takeover, but the shareholders were more concerned with why they weren't getting dividends on their investments.

It wasn't too many years later that Ben and Jerry sold out -- albeit with some conditions, but off to Wall Street nonetheless.

It's hard to retain purity in an impure world.

Anonymous said...

How does it go - what goes around comes around?

Dann said...

Geez, Mike. I do believe that we could split a six pack and share several continuous and pleasant hours on this particular subject.

FWIW, I have a short story/Atlas-Shrugged-length-novel rolling around in my head that involves a future where every individual is forced to carry surgically implanted RFID tags. That plus retinal scans and fingerprints make it doggone hard to walk across the street without someone knowing it.

Sleep well. [grin]


Retiree in Mt. Vernon said...

To clarify: that "anonymous" was supposed to read "retiree in Mt.Vernon."

ronnie said...

Interesting post, Mike. I assume "EZPass" is some kind of electronic toll pass? I am familiar with such systems for one particular toll road or bridge or another (for example, the MacDonald Bridge between Dartmouth and Halifax has a card you can buy and keep on your dashboard and you'll be billed a (slightly reduced) rate per zoom by the tollbooth - does EZPass cover all toll roads in a particular geographic area?

You are right about us all having our limits. As I said in a very long recent back-and-forth with a Mr. S. Harrington, with whom I believe you are familiar, "I am pragmatically hypocritical about it - or hypocritically pragmatic, take your pick".


Mike said...

Yes, the benefits of EZPass began to strike me when I had to drive the length of New Jersey and faced piddly little tolls every few miles -- the system works in a large number of states and I think I saw it out in Colorado a couple of weeks ago, though I didn't have my car. I guess I could have brought the little reader and used it in my rental car, though. It's very seductive because it's so very useful and ubiquitous.

And, as said, I certainly leave enough other tracks that -- sigh -- one more isn't going to make that much difference.

Reductio ad absurdum ain't what it used to be. Dann's allusion to retinal scans and implanted devices sounds loony, but there actually are a couple of school districts -- one in the Houston area, specifically -- that issue ID cards that track kids around the school building. It has been seriously suggested that the kids would be safer with a grain-of-rice-sized implant that would track them.

When this appeared in an episode of Nellie Bly, one of my son's students, who has dressed deer and knows whereof he speaks, suggested in class that it could be dangerous because kids would try to remove the thing and would hurt themselves digging it out.

Fact is, it's getting kind of hard to come up with anything as outrageous as the proposals being offered sincerely.

Dann said...

I'm a visionary.....unfortunately I'm also nearsighted. [grin]

Dann said...

Just heard an item on ABC News (radio version). There are about 2500 people in the world that have tracking chips implanted in them. The story was about folks with Alzheimers, but suggested that those patients weren't the sole reason for being bugged.


Mark Jackson said...

"Yes, the benefits of EZPass began to strike me when I had to drive the length of New Jersey and faced piddly little tolls every few miles -- the system works in a large number of states and I think I saw it out in Colorado a couple of weeks ago, though I didn't have my car."

See - almost entirely East coast, no Colorado. I'm delighted to see that they include Illinois, however - they did not the last time I checked - since that state charges double tolls if you use cash.

Mike said...

Right you are -- I just looked it up in one of those, "Am I crazy?" moments. No, not crazy. Just wrong. There is a drive-thru electronic thingie system, but it's called EXpresstoll.

According to the info at the website,,
you don't have to slow down -- the slogan is "what cruise control is meant for."

Other'n that, it looks like pretty much the same deal. I'm sure they still know who drove back from the airport that way. I didn't have to slow down, either -- I took the other road. Not for security reasons. I'm just cheap.

ronnie said...

"I just looked it up in one of those, 'Am I crazy?' moments. No, not crazy. Just wrong."

Can't you be both? :D