Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Discount Cards

So I buy some bread at Great Harvest Bread Company. Along with the loaf, the cashier hands me a Frequent Buyer’s Card. Printed on it are “Buy 10 loaves, get 1 free” and spaces to keep track of my purchases.

I shove the card into my wallet, already bulging from other store cards. I have ones from Borders Café, Genuardi’s, Ritz Camera, Vitamin Shoppe, Staples, PETCO, Radio Shack, ad infinitum. My wallet immediately explodes, violently spewing plastic bar-coded bits and coinage carnage all over the store.

I don’t try to recover anything. I just run, hoping to travel back to the time before capitalism coughed up these cards. Who doesn’t have dozens of them? You’re supposed to present them whenever you buy stuff, and you get lower prices or more nebulous rewards. If they’re not frequent buyer cards, they’re “membership cards,” “preferred customer cards,” or “discount cards.” But mainly, they’re “extremely annoying cards.” They pile higher and higher, waiting for you to return to their mother ship establishment two years later and forget to use them anyway.

Yet a collection of these cards, in my experience, is no house of cards. It’s a major stronghold to be reckoned with: No mere mortal consumer is psychologically capable of disposing of or even thinning the herd. What if one day you return to Pete’s Shoelace Emporium in One Acre, South Dakota? You’ll need the membership card you signed up for on your first visit. You haven’t been letting some day job chip away at your sanity for years just to pay the non-member price for rhinestone bootlaces.

When cashiers swipe your card, a database records your purchases and tracks your spending patterns. Supposedly everybody wins. The consumer gets discounts, and the store learns how to perfect the target marketing which results in greater profits.

One of my friends said he’d rather forego economic rewards than let a store know his shopping habits. I can’t understand his card-shunning from that standpoint. I’m pretty sure nobody’s reading the data scans and yelling, “Joe, look – this guy's only 26 and buys Dentucreme! Call the Associated Press!”

But I have no trouble understanding the desire to stop juggling all these cards. In my wildest dreams, all venues of commerce come together and centralize their databases. Then – believe it or not – you’d need one and only one card. Think of the benefits. Wallet space would open up. No more stink-eye from customers in line behind you as you spend an hour searching through twenty cards for the right one. The Society for the Abolishment of Discount Cards would disband, and the president could get on with her life.

But don’t forget the best benefit of all. I’ll invite everyone reading this to a huge bonfire at my house. I’ll supply the lighter fluid, if you supply my preferred fuel for the fire – be sure to leave none of your discount cards behind.