April 26, 2013

Letter: Privacy Issues With Walgreens' Balance Rewards Program

Walgreens has added a membership club and at least one neighbor is not pleased. Marianne has concerns:
I am upset at Walgreens.

They have a new “membership rewards” program. Not sure what it gets you, but I don’t want to be a “member” of Walgreens.

Today I went in to get a bunch of things, and because I am not a member, they disallowed all the price discounts on my items.

I spoke to the manager and he said he’d “make an exception” for my purchases. That is not the point. The information gathering is too pervasive especially since they already have all my prescription info. The advertising pricing is deceptive – it’s a neighborhood store - and only members get discounts? There’s something creepy about that. And that the manager could “make an exception”? What’s that all about? I don’t want to be an exception. I just don’t want to be a member.
Member clubs aren't new and it's no suprise that Walgreens would institute one. But Marianne has a good point - Walgreens is the only pharmacy in the neighborhood and already has a huge amount of protected health information on Noe Valley residents. Do you want them to also track your shopping habits?

It's bad enough that they make you push a button that announces "assistance needed in the hemorrhoids aisle."

For what it's worth, Walgreens states that it adheres to its privacy policy, and that HIPAA-protected information can only be linked to the Balance Rewards program with explicit consent.


Anonymous said...

OK, I need some clarification: so are these discounts clearly labeled for 'members'? If so, then what is this person complaining about? If you want the discounts, sign up. If you feel being a member is too invasive, don't sign up and you don't get a discount.

Doesn't Safeway and others already do this?

Now, separately: if you were able to show that Walgreens started increasing regular prices (non-member-prices) AFTER they initiated this member program, then you have a huge class-action case. And many lawyers would love to take Walgreens to court there. But I would bet Walgreens (and others) are already aware they can't do that.

Anonymous said...

I think they did this in response to the new CVS store's 'membership' card.

Anonymous said...

Almost every grocery store (where you can also fill prescriptions) has a membership program for discounts.

Anyway, you don't get discounts on prescriptions so this being the only pharmacy in the neighborhood is beside the point - the items that are discounted (e.g. toilet paper) can be purchased other places so just take your business elsewhere (Whole Foods, corner store) if this upsets you so much.

Anonymous said...

While I can understand why stores want to collect information on their customers, I'm not a big fan of being tracked, so I'm definitely not signing up for the Walgreens card even though I do shop there occasionally.

Anyone concerned about this particular area of privacy should read an article that appeared in the New York Times last year:


If you use a credit or debit card when you shop at Target (or any other large chain store, for that matter), your shopping habits are absolutely being tracked. Read the article for details.

If having your shopping habits tracked bothers you (as it does me), the best thing you can do to avoid it is to always pay cash. (So old-fashioned, I know!)

Anonymous said...

This letter is insane and another perfect example of people with too much time on their hands bitching about stupid stuff! If you don't want to be part of the membership club to get the discounts then don't sign up. Tons of retailers have loyalty programs they require you to be members of in order to receive the perks.

If Marianne is worried about Walgreens knowing that she prefers to use Crest over Colgate then I sure hope she doesn't have a Facebook account, use Amazon, or shop online at ANY retailer for that matter.

Anonymous said...

Calling walgreen's a "neighborhood store" is hilarious. They have over 8,000 locations nationwide, employ 250,000 people, and made over $70 billion in 2012. They are a massive fortune 500 company...so if this woman wants a "neighborhood" experience she'll have to look elsewhere!

Erin said...

Not to mention that if they are tracking us, they're not doing it to benefit from/take advantage of any individual's activity, but to gather statistics and tailor advertising to their customers. They're not advertising to YOU, they're advertising to your perceived habits. Big whoop.

I deal with PHI (in work entirely unrelated to Walgreens) every day, and I can tell you that (1) I tune it out, (2) I and everyone I work with take HIPAA very seriously, (3) there are many, many safeguards in place so that random people do not have access to it. Walgreens surely takes similar precautions.

Anonymous said...

I think we can all agree the Noe Valley Walgreens is terrible, especially the pharmacy counter.

That said, you could get a card under a fake name and number. I'm sorry this is so frustrating!

John said...

If you pay with a credit card they track you anyway and it's trivial for them to find your name/address etc from your card number.

Anonymous said...

True - tracking buying habits is here to stay. But isn't it odd that Noe Valley Walgreens has member only sale items and the very same items are not on sale in the Mission. So- does it follow that they are more interested in tracking Noe Valley purchases? Odd or not?

Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly with Marianne who wrote the original letter. I live in Wisconsin, so I am unfamiliar with her neighborhood store, but the same idea applies to any franchise store.

The idea that customers should have to provide their DOB and home address to a retail store in order to be allowed to buy items on sale is so ridiculous that when Walgreens instituted this new policy, I instituted a policy of my own --- I no longer shop at Walgreens.

There are plenty of other stores who do not impose invasive requirements on their customers, and those stores are getting all my business.

Anonymous said...

The civil thing to do is to join up as a member.
Creating and use an obscure email address (that you only use for inane purposes such as this). Give them a fake name, address, and phone number. Receive the little discount card and be done.
Play them on their game.
To this day, clerks often thank me by my fake name after check out.
No harm done, right?

Anonymous said...

The people who have responded to this post claiming that Marianne has nothing to complain about has it absolutely backwards. This card is AN INVASION OF PRIVACY. The Marketing geniuses at Walgreens have NO business knowing what prescriptions I fill, what contraceptive I use and how often I purchase feminine products. It's disgusting and those that buy into this program are sheep following the flock.

Anonymous said...

I just came from a Walgreens store. This issue has persisted because people like those clueless one who first responded by saying that Marianne is misguided or "has too much time on her hands" are taking the lazy way out. They are content to watch your privacy rights be eroded bit by bit and do nothing about it. Wake up you silly sheep! You are contributing to the monetization of privacy. Be a citizen and speak up. Tell the store managers, the Boards of directors, and your legislators that better privacy legislation is needed. If you don't understand why then you need to read something other than the loyalty program marketing materials. These programs have been outsourced to companies whose identities you may never have heard of, who have unknown privacy and security records and who share this data with parties unknown to you. It is a multi-billion dollar shadow business and they have a more comprehensice personal profile of you than you doctor may have and have no accountibility for it. Time to wake up.

Anonymous said...

I just returned a $9 item that I had bought the day before with cash. I had the receipt, and the item was in perfect condition. They demanded to see my license in order to let me return it. I refused, and they then relented. But what the heck? Why do they need my license?