Q: "Is there any indication that the bar code system on a coupon will also track what a customer buys? Collecting information on a consumer 'for marketing purposes' is something I choose to opt out of. But, does a coupon's bar code enable information collection?"
A: It's no secret that many stores track the shopping habits of customers. Any supermarket that offers a shopper's savings or loyalty card is openly collecting data. This is generally a trade-off that shoppers accept, since the store's shopper's card typically offers a lower, better set of sales prices than the regular, non-sale prices in the same store. People typically will use the shopper's card to save an extra $1 on an item with the understanding that the store also keeps a running list, somewhere in the background, of everything the shoppers buy at that store.
How is that information used? Clearly, a detailed list of the products a shopper purchases regularly is valuable for stores and manufacturers alike. Stores can look at aggregate data after a particular sale and see how many shoppers took advantage of the promotion. Manufacturers can see how effective a certain advertising campaign was by looking at statistics on how many shoppers purchased a new product.
If your store offers Catalina coupons (the kind that print out from the register in the checkout lane), these offers also can be tied to the purchase history on your shopper's card. If you buy a package of newborn-size diapers, within a few months the Catalina machine may start generating coupons for larger diaper sizes. And it doesn't stop there. Once the store's system knows you have a baby in the house, expect coupons for baby food and sippy cups, too.
Competing manufacturers can create offers based on your past purchase history. If I buy Minute Maid orange juice regularly, Catalina coupons for Tropicana may print at the register. A manufacturer may target shoppers who like their competitor's brand, hoping they'll try their brand next time.
Stores also can use loyalty card tracking information to assist customers in the event that there's a problem with a product they've purchased. In the past few years, several retailers have used card data to contact shoppers during meat and produce recalls. If a recall is issued, the store can generate a list of shoppers who purchased the product during the recall dates and let their customers know that they should not eat the affected foods.
But back to your question: Can the bar code on a coupon track what you buy? While there's nothing in the bar code itself that will tie you personally to having bought a product, if you utilize a shopper's savings card, the card will track everything you buy. Certainly, the technology exists for the store to record whether a shopper used a coupon on a particular product at the point of purchase.
While all of this may seem a bit big brother-ish, stores bank on most people being willing to give up some privacy about their purchases, in exchange for lower prices at the supermarket. I'm OK with this. Honestly, I welcome more coupons for products that I buy regularly. I'm more concerned with what I'm paying for my groceries than I am with the idea that someone tracks what I buy.
However, if privacy issues are a concern for you, you may wish to shop "anonymously," which in today's world is getting difficult to do. You'll not only need to forego using a store's loyalty card (and willingly pay higher prices for your groceries), but also pay for groceries in cash. Even stores that don't use loyalty cards can track purchases via the credit or debit card used; a quick scan of your card activates your purchase history in the store. You may walk in to buy broccoli, scan your card, and the Catalina machine may print out a coupon for potato chips, because you bought that brand on a previous trip.
Jill Cataldo, a coupon workshop instructor, writer and mother of three, never passes up a good deal. Learn more about couponing at her web site, www.supercouponing.com. E-mail your own couponing victories and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.