Members-only pricing may not be illegal, but it is damned irritating (Opinion)

Members-only pricing is becoming more prevalent, especially with the big franchise brands. It is purely an excuse to get and monetise your personal data.

Besides food and the odd drop of booze (Everyday Rewards or Flybuys), I don’t often shop in brick-and-mortar stores anymore. But Xmas means gift-giving, and there is nothing quite like wandering the aisles (I like to get my step count up) to find that must-have gift.

So I went to the Sydney CBD, a Westfield, and a large shopping centre to browse and buy. Note: I won’t name names, but you may have experienced the same treatment. Images are indicative only.

You can’t buy unless you are a member

I went to a well-known CE retailer and found a couple of classic DVD movies – the perfect gift for someone who likes that sort of thing. At the pay station, I was greeted, “Let’s start with your phone number and email address”. To which I responded, “I am not giving you my data”. She responded, “Well, we can’t sell to you without that”. To which I nearly responded, “F^&k you,” but didn’t. Instead, I politely asked her to get the manager. It seems that cashiers have been instructed to request this and, if it is not forthcoming, do everything to insist the customer sign up for a membership card, “To track warranties – you don’t need to keep a receipt”.

Long story short, I explained I was paying the marked price, and it was bad enough that the bank knew everything about my card transactions. I insisted they sell me the goods without the personal data hoovering membership card. And yes, I was quite prepared otherwise to shove the DVDs up the manager’s rectum. Yes, they sold me the two DVDs, and I got a paper receipt if I needed a warranty. Note: I was told DVDs/Blu-ray, etc., are not returnable if the plastic wrap is removed, and I only had a 30-day DOA warranty. I am sure ACCC would have something to say about that.

No clear members-only pricing signage

Next, I went to a well-known sports shoe/apparel store to look at a particular brand of sports shoes. I usually buy online at 40-60% off, but the images don’t always show the sole and upper material all that well, and I did not want a foam sole that wears out in months.

The store had copious point-of-sale red circles espousing ‘Sale’ with no, repeat no, disclaimers or terms and conditions. I settled on a pair, tried them on, and all was good. At the pay station, I was asked for my phone number or membership card. I responded that I was not a member and did not wish to join. She said, “That will be $149.99” (not $99.99 on the card) and was told that all sale prices were members-only prices.

Again, I asked for the manager and pointed out that there were no visible external signs saying sale prices were members-only pricing. She pointed to a tiny sign behind the pay station and said it was too difficult to show members’ and non-members’ pricing. I knew my rights and insisted that she sell the goods for the marked price or the ACCC would be informed. She responded all I had to do was join or I could walk out. No sale. I got the shoes online using my junk email account and PayPal and delivered them to a Post Locker.

Members-only pricing sale

I went to a clothing chain from which, in the past, I had bought cheap but durable walking gear. Its sale signs were ambiguous – it did not state you had to get a card for member-only pricing. So I walked out, shirtless. By the way it is illegal to offer goods cheaper online if you have bricks-and-mortar stores.

I walked into a kitchen shop that always seems to be having ‘End of Lease” (they have been there for years and probably many more) or “Going out of Business” sales. I found the knife sharpening steel at 50% off (I knew what I wanted and could have bought it online inc delivery for 15% less), went to the pay station, and was greeted, “Let’s start with your phone number and email address…”

Store credits or gift vouchers

Many retailers now offer discounts off RRP only as store credits that can only be used for future in-store purchases. A condition of receiving the award is that you must sign up for its loyalty program and, in many cases, download its app to access the digital money. And the retailer knows that the redemption rate on store credits (as they must be used for a future purchase) is only about 30%.

By this stage, this wholesale grab of my personal data was beginning to annoy me.

Retail shopping for the elderly or non-tech-savvy just became harder

Retailers assume that you have a mobile phone number and an email address. My elderly aunt has neither, nor will she use a credit card. She finds smartphones too hard, so she has a large-button dumb phone (no email) that is getting harder to find.

As I have an email address and a credit card, I pay all her bills – rates, water, electricity, phone, medical, etc.

She tells me that her favourite stores all want her to sign up. But she can’t because she does not have a credit card, mobile number, or email address. Despite being a long-term store supporter, it annoys her when she cannot get the members-only pricing.

She relies on Australia Post to deliver occasional packages (that I order online), and it now does not leave a red card if she is out. She needs an email address, mobile phone number and, ideally, the AP app to track parcels.

To add insult, her lifelong bank closed its branch at the local supermarket (which she can walk to), and she can no longer withdraw cash to cover her expenses. The nearest branch is now 20 minutes drive away. She was just told it will close and will need to get the banking app and a debit card. She has no debit card for the Medicare rebate when she visits the doctor, so I claim that.

Things are getting increasingly grim for the aged and infirm, all because someone wants to monetise your data.

How much data is gathered?

I am a tech journo. I know just how much data it hoovered up and monetised. At a minimum, the non-anonymised data (that is, real granular, personally identifiable data) includes:

  • Name
  • Address
  • Email
  • Phone
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Ethnicity

From what you buy

  • Payment details (credit/debit card or cash)
  • Shoe, waist, chest, height, and size.
  • If you have children and inferences about their age and gender.
  • If you have a pet.
  • Smoker, drinker or not.
  • Indication of socio-economic status.
  • Marital status (multiple cards).
  • Indication of career/profession.
  • Sports interests (including boating, camping, fishing etc).
  • Pretty well everything you ever buy.
  • If the shop has facial recognition cameras, it can gauge your mood, age, ethnicity, etc.

Now I know that most Gen X, Y or Z gladly hand over their personal data in return for some benefit, and that is their choice. I asked a friend’s 25-year-old daughter how many loyalty cards she had – over 40! She knew of friends with double that. She gets a whopping 300 or more monthly emails advising her of special offers, etc. That excludes the Facebook Marketplace – a whole other story!

AI is creeping in

I started acknowledging Everyday Rewards and Flybuys. Overall, the rewards in terms of discounts, dollars-off, members-only pricing, bonus points, 10% off one monthly shop, specials on recurrent buys, etc., make it a no-brainer. I am not so worried about these cards, although I am increasingly concerned about their partner programs that can access your data.

Woollies and Coles are beginning to employ AI to extract more value from your data. Your data is being used to steer you to other brands of goods you have purchased. It can see what the other companies offer and meet or beat that. They are tailoring incentives right down to the individual consumer level. In short, they can predict and influence customer behaviour with the sole purpose of extracting more money. Rule: Impulse buying is deadly to your wallet.

But I get most worried when the big franchise stores collaborate. Data is the currency that matters most across the retail ecosystem. These companies collaboratively monetise your data to fill out your profiles. They can exploit expanded ‘Retail Media Networks’ to build more loyalty.

You may not care about personal data, but I do.

What can you do to reduce data hoovering?

  • Set up a junk email account that you will ultimately use for all loyalty programs, TV streaming, warranty registration, etc.
  • With a Junk email account, don’t give anything away. For example, instead of using your name, Fred/Freeda Smith put ‘F’ as a given name and ‘S’ as a surname. Make one up if it insists on a birthday (most subtract ten years). Importantly, never put any contacts in that profile so companies can’t hoover them up as well. Gradually swap all existing loyalty cards to the junk address. That means accessing your card, changing the email address, removing whatever data you can (especially birthday, gender, etc.) and requesting that all data held be provided to you (that is mandatory under ACCC rules).
  • I use PayPal, linked to my credit card, to pay for most items. It provides an anonymous digital payment mechanism that is safer than bank credit/debit cards.
  • unsubscribe from annoying emails, but before that, see if you can delete any personal data.
  • Use a free Australia Post parcel locker or a PO Box as your address.
  • Always untick the box that allows marketing information to be sent to you.

CyberShack’s view – members-only pricing and Loyalty/Member programs sell your data

This data-hoovering behaviour is just getting worse. It is particularly endemic to franchise stores with loyalty programs.

My point is that it should be your choice to give data away, but it is getting so that you cannot avoid it. And that is wrong.

CyberShack opinion pieces

You don’t complain via the ACCC. You start with the state-based consumer protection agency.

Australian Capital Territory
Office of Regulatory Services
GPO Box 158
Canberra ACT 2601
Telephone: 02 6207 3000
Australian Capital Territory: Office of Regulatory Services website

New South Wales
NSW Fair Trading
PO Box 972
Parramatta NSW 2124
Telephone: 13 32 20
New South Wales: Fair Trading website

Northern Territory
Northern Territory Consumer Affairs
PO Box 40946
Casuarina NT 0811
Telephone: 1800 019 319
Northern Territory: Consumer Affairs website

Office of Fair Trading
GPO Box 3111
Brisbane QLD 4001
Telephone: 13 QGOV (13 74 68)
Queensland: Office of Fair Trading website

South Australia
Consumer and Business Services
GPO Box 1719
Adelaide SA 5001
Telephone: 131 882
South Australia: Consumer and Business Services website

Consumer Affairs and Fair Trading
GPO Box 1244
Hobart TAS 7001
Telephone: 1300 654 499
Tasmania: Consumer Affairs and Fair Trading website

Consumer Affairs Victoria
GPO Box 123
Melbourne 3001
Telephone: 1300 55 81 81
Victoria: Consumer Affairs Victoria website

Western Australia
Department of Commerce
Locked Bag 14
Cloisters Square WA 6850
Telephone: 1300 30 40 54
Western Australia: Department of Commerce website