The New York Times has an article on something many shoppers have already learned about: custom tailored coupon and pricing programs, such as Safeway's "Just For U" program. On the face of it, these programs look like the holy grail of couponing: no coupons to clip, and great steep discounts on the things you buy all the time (or things very much like them).
Customized pricing: great or terrifying?
Unfair to consumers?
But as the New York Times points out, this also represents a beachhead for a possible future where the price of goods is not fixed. Where, much like airplane tickets, the cost of everything in the grocery store is fluid, depending on the season, the purchaser, or other factors.
Put it this way: it's great that I have been getting a run of steep discounts on Starbucks ground coffee. Safeway has obviously put 2 and 2 together and discovered that I buy Starbucks ground coffee, but only when it is on sale below a specific threshold. Those bags of coffee are less than a pound (only 12 ounces), and I only buy them if they cost less per pound than they would if I bought them at the Starbucks store a block away. Lo and behold, I have been getting a string of deals on this particular kind of coffee - and as a consequence, I have bought (and stockpiled) a lot more of it than I otherwise would have.
That's a clear win for both me and the grocery store. But what about a potential future where there are no prices on the aisles? This is the dystopia the New York Times foresees. What happens when Safeway also realizes that I will pay up to a dollar apiece for avocados in season? Maybe I will end up paying a dollar apiece, while the base price is actually only 75 cents apiece.
As it is, these customized coupon programs do seem to violate an unspoken system of fair play. As I cruise the grocery store aisles, I wonder what great deals my fellow shoppers are getting, that were not offered to me. What am I paying full price for, that the next person in line was able to get at half off?
At least with regular coupons, everyone has a fair shot at getting the same coupon. You may need to hunt down a copy of the newspaper, or pick through the circulars that come in the mail, but at least we all have the same chance at the same deals. But with these customized programs, the grocery stores are going to a "black box" system without that level of transparency. It's definitely something to think about.