My favorite grocery store reminds me of the little town where I grew up. A block from the Cheyenne, Wyo., capitol building, it's a miniature community where legislators in three-piece suits jostle the homeless people cashing welfare checks. Clerks call cabs for shoppers, asking about their grandkids, and treat folks with food stamps as politely as they treat lawyers. Local teenagers call it the "ghetto Safeway."
Still, when the store offered a "Safeway Club card" guaranteeing discounts to regular customers, I hesitated. I know some companies collect and sell data about customers, so when I buy a lawn mower or a magazine subscription, information may be fed to a central location as part of a "customer profile" used to predict what I might buy from advertising mailed to me. Businesses love targeted mailings -- "personalized marketing" -- but most of us call this "junk mail." I've spent hours telephoning and writing to ask companies to remove me from mailing lists that waste natural resources and my time.
The Safeway card bears nothing but a number and my signature, and the application form assured me, "Safeway does not sell or disclose personally identifying information (i.e., your name, address, telephone number, and bank and credit card account numbers) to other companies." So I signed up.
After noticing that my name appeared at the bottom of cash register tapes as "Linda M. Hasselstr," I was amused when new clerks said, "Thank you, Mrs. Hasselstr," and asked my ethnicity. Then I began to notice my mailbox filling with promotions bearing my "new" name and correct address.
Since the truncated version of my name appears only on Safeway's card, it seemed obvious the store had sold that information. In my anger, my warm image of the store wobbled; folks at home gossip, but they don't sell my secrets to strangers.
So I wrote a letter demonstrating how I believed the store had betrayed me. Suddenly, shopping made me nervous. Dithering in the health aisle, I wondered if buying generic aspirin would inspire more mail from The Reincarnation Library or Vic "Nightingale" Conant. My confidence in my grocery community wavered.
Then I sent six months' worth of junk mail to the address on the Safeway card, along with my letter; another copy went to the local store manager. I visualized hordes of Safeway shoppers complaining. Would the policy change?
As usual in real life, the truth was more complicated than my easy answer.
On my next trip to the local store, a young man called my name and introduced himself as the manager. He apologized for the mailings. If Safeway had sold data, he, too, felt betrayed because he'd been assured it wouldn't happen. Neither of us knew the explanation, but his sincerity struck me as authentic.
Two days later, the Safeway employee who'd received the article and the junk mail called, identified himself, and swore the company does not sell information. Studying my article, he'd concluded that other marketers use the same software, offering only nine spaces for the surname: hence "Hasselstr." The explanation rang true.
The next step, he suggested, is for me to ask the other companies where they got my name and redouble my efforts to be removed from their lists. I'll do that.
So this story's lesson is different than I expected it to be: Safeway made an effort and proved its honesty to my satisfaction. My actions taught me -- again -- not to trust appearances.
Encouraged, I'll increase my efforts to protect my privacy from marketers who use techniques that do not belong in the kind of community where I want to live. My purchases are my business, and no transaction gives a merchant the right to profit further by selling statistics about me to data-collection companies.
Since no law blocks the resale of information given voluntarily, I'll continue to ignore warranty cards, surveys and sweepstakes entries, which only provide private information to marketers. I'll note which companies allow me to opt out of data-selling schemes, commend and patronize them. I'll set my Internet browser to reject "cookies," and I'll read privacy policies before registering at Web sites.
And once more I'll remind the folks at Direct Marketing Association's Mail Preference Service (P.O. Box 9008, Farmingdale NY 11735, 712/768-7277) to take me off those lists. I urge you to do the same.
Linda Hasselstrom is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). She ranches and writes from South Dakota and Cheyenne, Wyo.