Don't discount this shopper

Material World

March 16, 2003|By New York Times News Service

Supermarket "club cards" pose a problem for the privacy-minded: Is it worth a few dollars in savings to let the store track your purchases of TV dinners and home pregnancy tests?

Rob Cockerham, a graphic designer in Sacramento, Calif., has decided that the best way to maintain his shopping privacy is to get lost in a crowd.

So he has cloned his discount card and used his Web site to recruit a small army of Rob Cockerhams, whom he has unleashed against the Safeway chain, which has more than 1,650 stores in the United States and Canada.

His team of about 180 card-carrying fellow travelers has used Cockerham's discount account to ring up more than $5,000 in purchases at more than 50 different Safeway stores.

The plan was hatched in December, when Cockerham printed some stickers that carefully replicated the bar code on the back of his Safeway Club card.

Then using his Web site,, where he has developed a following by documenting his wacky science experiments and pranks, he sought recruits.

"Together," he wrote on the site, "we might amass a profile of the single greatest shopper in the history of mankind."

Pasting Cockerham's stickers over the bar codes on their own Safeway cards, the shoppers receive discounts on their own purchases. But Safeway's computers peg them all to his account, compiling a list of his latest shopping "favorites" that he can monitor by logging on to Safeway's shop-from-home site.

Thus could he report to his fellow shoppers on Jan. 2: "We bought sausage, pudding, contact lens fluid and condoms yesterday. What a great way to kick off the new year!"

Cockerham said in an interview that his caper was not necessarily meant to make a profound statement about privacy. "It was more like, here's a system that I can mess with, and I'm going to because I don't like it."

A spokesman for Safeway, Brian Dowling, said the card data "helps us identify what our best customers purchase most often," so the Cockerham clones posed no serious threat to the company's database.

"It's a novel sort of prank, I guess," he said.

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