Excerpted from MSNBC.com, “Dial-a-recall? Stores use cards to warn buyers” by JoNel Aleccia, January 23, 2009
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Jon Lowder usually disdains computer-generated telephone calls but when he got two this week from Costco, he didn’t mind.
The giant warehouse retailer was dialing Lowder to warn him that two brands of peanut butter sports bars he bought for his kids had been recalled as part of a growing salmonella food poisoning scare.
“They’d scoured their database and found any members who had purchased Clif Bars from them and then called them to let them know that they should dump those Clif Bars,” said Lowder. “Did I mention I love Costco?”
Certain shoppers are getting personalized warnings from the stores that sold them. They’re customers who hold membership cards at places such as Costco, or “loyalty cards” used to access discounts and services at some grocery stores.
About 1 million of Costco’s 54 million card-carrying members got calls about peanut butter products this week.
And in the Northeast, the Wegmans regional grocery store chain completed more than 17,000 calls about potentially tainted ice cream on Tuesday, and nearly 3,000 calls about suspect peanut butter cup candy on Thursday, all to holders of the store’s “Shoppers Club” cards who bought the affected items.
“It was really amazing that so many customers had no idea about the recall.”
The outreach is part of a small but growing trend that raises questions among consumer privacy advocates but draws praise from shoppers warned away from suspect products.
Chalk up a victory to “relationship marketing,” in which retailers try to woo consumers with personal reasons to seek their stores. In the case of food safety outreach, it’s a win all around.
But that confidence may come at a cost, noted Alessandro Acquisti, assistant professor of information technology and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. He said he appreciates the constructive use of consumer data to warn about food poisoning, but worries about less benevolent actions.
“In this case, many consumers would be happy their information was used that way,” said Acquisti, “But they may be very unhappy if that same data is used to send them advertising they don’t want or if it is used in other ways they don’t want.”
Costco started making phone calls within the last two years, after a decade of sending letters about recalled items.
The effort isn’t comprehensive. Costco makes calls only for items identified as potentially serious or deadly Class 1 recalls by federal officials. Calls can only be made to consumers who provide accurate phone numbers and, in the case of Wegmans, only those who provide landlines.
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