One of my first jobs as a teenager, twenty-some years ago, was a salesperson at Radio Shack. Our point-of-sale system functioned on phone numbers for some reason, so whenever a customer wanted to purchase something, we asked the customer for his or her phone number. Even if the customer was buying a pack of AA batteries with cash, we were required to follow this procedure. If they weren’t in the system, which from what I remember wasn’t networked with other stores, we would ask for their mailing address.
This process annoyed customers every day. Most customers entered the store because they needed something quick, like the battery I needed for my car’s keyless remote the other day. There is no need to spend extra time in the store, but most people’s objection was to the unnecessary personal nature of the questions. The process served one primary purpose. The store wants customers’ addresses to send them ads, and the phone number is an easy unique identifier. When I visited Radio Shack the other day for the battery, I noticed the process had changed. Rather than practically requiring a phone number (which was the method of operation in the store where I worked decades ago, unless the customer stringently protested), the cashier asked if I would like to provide my email address to receive coupons. I politely declined, paid for my batteries, and left.
One reason we often gave, as Radio Shack salespeople, for collecting people’s addresses is so the corporation could determine where to set up new storefronts. If many customers were coming to one store from a town and ZIP Code twenty miles away, Radio Shack would supposedly look into opening a store closer to that location. I have no proof that this ever happened, but the theory seems relatively sound.
These days, with the increased popularity of credit and debit card transactions, this information should already be available. Still, some retailers ask for your ZIP Code with every purchase. I’ve noticed this when shopping in Bed Bath and Beyond. This isn’t to verify your credit card information, though ZIP Code is one of the allowed authentication checks for credit card merchant agreements. In California, asking for a ZIP Code at time of purchase is now against consumer privacy law, now that courts recently determined that a ZIP Code is considered personal identification information. This sparked lawsuits against Bed Bath and Beyond and Crate and Barrel, a store that apparently follows the same procedure.
Customers apparently believed they were compelled to provide the requested information at the time of sale. I usually don’t have any problem sharing my ZIP Code with cashiers who ask. It hasn’t made me uncomfortable, but I could understand that some shoppers might feel pressured to provide the information. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing your personal information, don’t. Stores will let you complete your purchase as long as you don’t give them reason to believe you’re shoplifting, committing fraud, or using someone else’s method of payment. The best retailers won’t give you a hard time for not providing the information.
If you feel uncomfortable sharing personal information, just say no. Have you ever had an experience with a cashier who gave you a hard time for not providing your ZIP Code, phone number, or address?
Published or updated February 22, 2011.