Sunday, October 19, 2008


As the economy continues to founder, most people are struggling to find ways to cut their expenses. At the very least, they're being more careful than ever not to pay more for goods and services than they absolutely have to.

For example, customers who once might not have bothered to use food coupons or to register for grocery-store discount cards now are willing to consider any of these options.

Barbara Howard of San Clemente, Calif., realizes that supermarkets offer sizable discounts on some items if you use their store cards while shopping. While traveling recently, however, she found herself shopping at a market she previously had never used.

She figured that using a card would save her a few dollars, so she asked the man behind her in line if he'd mind sharing his card.

He did so willingly. When her order was run up, she paid in cash, returned his card, thanked him and left.

"But as I drove away," Howard writes, "I wondered if the right thing would have been to give him the money I saved."

Several years ago I responded to a reader who wondered if it was OK to lend her card to another shopper. I said that it was, but argued that, ideally, shoppers would sign up for their own cards or ask the checker to scan in a generic number rather than use someone else's card. The store keeps a tally of what each cardholder buys, in part to make special offers keyed to those purchases.

Still, even the stores are inconsistent in the way they handle this. My wife tells me that only last week a checker at our local supermarket asked her if she would mind letting the guy in front of her use her shopping card, since he had forgotten his own.

That isn't Howard's issue, however. She's wondering whether the lender of the card should have reaped the rewards his card garnered for Howard. She wants to know, in short, if she owes the stranger anything for his kindness.

She owes him nothing but gratitude. He loaned her the card, but it was the store that provided the discount, not him. His gesture may have been convenient, but it cost him nothing to make it -- so she wouldn't be repaying him, she'd be giving him a profit. If Howard were to pay him the difference, he'd be getting some of the store's money and she'd be paying the same amount she would have paid without the card. If that were the case, what would be the point of having borrowed his card in the first place?

The store gives the discount to encourage people to spend their money at that store. Howard was the one who spent the money, so Howard is the one who gets the discount.

That having been said, many of my readers believe -- and write to tell me so -- that grocery stores do the wrong thing for their customers by using discount cards at all. It disadvantages customers, they believe, by artificially inflating prices in a way that customers can avoid only by giving over their personal information to get a card and suffering the inconvenience of remembering the card every time they shop.

If grocery stores do boost their prices to facilitate a discount program, as some readers suggest, their customers might want to consider shopping elsewhere. But the stores have a right to set up their price structures as they see fit, and many other readers see nothing wrong in the no-cost discount cards, and appreciate the coupons and special discounts that come with them.

As for Howard's situation, her fellow shopper lent his card willingly and was in no way disadvantaged by doing so. He may even have been helped, if Howard's purchases give him extra points toward bonuses, as is the case with many store cards. She doesn't owe him any money.

The right thing for her to do is to return his card, thank him, gather her purchases and leave.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

I appreciated you comments in today's Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch about the use of store cards and whether their use is somewhat unethical.

One aspect of the cards I find unfortunate, if not actually unethical. The major grocery stores in Columbus use the store cards and the reward is a discount per gallon for gasoline. My wife and I try to be responsible and drive a small, fuel-efficient car, while we see many others consuming much more of our precious supply of gasoline. With their large tanks, a discount per gallon saves them many more dollars than we receive. It's the only program I can think of that consciously sets out to reward those who are least responsible in their use of natural resources.

Doesn't this border on unethical behavior on the part of these stores?

Yours truly,

Gerald Newsom

Anonymous said...

In Sunday's column, it was mentioned that sharing a store card was all fine and good. Not so, don't do it. I received a letter from a supermarket chain I frequent saying I had bounced a check. I knew I hadn't, so I called and questioned it. What happened was they track the checks by their store card and I had "lent" mine to the person in front of me. Now whether the person in front of me realized that or not, I don't know. The store took me off the "bad" list of check writers but told me not to loan out the card and that their cashiers know that.

Have a good day,

Joy, Worthington, Oh

S. said...

I'm surprised you didn't touch the question of whether it's ethical to use somebody else's store card in the first place. After all, the basis for the discount is that it comes in exchange for providing demographic information about your buying habits... using somebody else's could be construed as cheating the store of that information.

Contrariwise, one might argue that the store gains the information that Howard is the kind of guy who lends his store card out, making it okay. :-)