Safeway’s “Just 4 U” program of targeted, personalized discounts has gotten praise for being on the cutting edge of retail marketing’s transition to the digital world.
From one recent account in AdWeek:
Take supermarket leader Safeway, for example. Last month, the grocer, which operates more than 1,600 stores in the U.S. and Canada, expanded its “Safeway Just 4 U” program to Oregon and Washington after testing in several other states last fall. The effort, run through its Shopper’s Club Card program, offers digital coupons based on purchase histories as well as personalized deals based on a customer’s buying patterns.
“In today’s on-the-go culture, many shoppers no longer want to spend time clipping coupons,” says Mike Minasi, president of marketing at Safeway. “We saw an unmet need in the marketplace and strived to create an effective digital solution. Now, shoppers can manage their shopping lists and savings from anywhere with the click of a button and the swipe of a Shopper’s Club Card.”
Safeway now offers several tiers of discounts. There are advertised specials featured in their printed advertising inserts, including some specials that require membership in the chains “Shoppers Club.”
Then we get to the targeted specials, delivered through their “personalized” offers, based on a particular shopper’s buying history. Finally, there are “deal match” specials, where Safeway matches a selection of the weekly specials at other area stores. The Safeway we shop at in Kaneohe offers “deal match” specials competing with Times and Foodland.
There are real deals to be had, no doubt, and at some levels the complex system works well.
But the program has glaring flaws which result in discounts not being applied as advertised. Since the errors involve the failure to apply discounts, errors are always in the store’s favor, resulting in systematic overcharging of consumers. We’ve been able to replicate some problems, and now know that it’s necessary to carefully review every receipt before leaving the store.
In addition, consumers at a distinct disadvantage due to the design of Safeway’s point of sale system.
Here’s my current understanding.
The errors occur at checkout. There seems to be a high error rate when ringing up the highly targeted “deal match” and personalized discounts that have to be associated with individual consumers when you swipe your Safeway club card.
There are two pieces to the puzzle. First, Safeway’s centralized computer system has trouble properly pricing the “personalized” and “deal match” specials when they are scanned.
Just as important is the design of the check-out system generally, which applies certain individualized discounts only at the end of the whole transaction and not at the same time individual items are tallied. You can’t easily look at your receipt, or at the screen as the check-out is in process, and determine what you’ve been charged for an affected item. This means the process is anything but transparent to consumers.
Even when the targeted discounts are properly applied, discounts appear only at the end of the receipt and do not identify the item(s) they are associated with. For example, if you have deal match prices on fresh salmon and yellow onions, they ring up at regular prices. Then, at the bottom of the receipt, it will show additional discounts given without identifying the items. So what if only one discount rings up? Which discount did you miss? Or is the discount in an unexpected place? It is very hard, even for alert shoppers, to stay on top of the process.
We’ve been able to replicate the problem with “deal match” specials on wine. For example, there have been several recent deal match specials on Boggle wines. Safeway says the regular price is something like $16.99. Their “club” special price has been $11.99. But the deal match price on two recent occasions was only $8.99. If you buy six bottles, Safeway adds an additional 10% discount, dropping the price down near $8.
At checkout, both times these items rang up with a regular price of $16.99 and, properly, a club discount of $5 each to $11.99. Both times the additional “deal match” discount wasn’t applied, but we were unable to confirm that until the transaction was completed and we were given the receipt.
Here’s the point where consumers are again at a terrible disadvantage. If you spot a possible error, you’ve got two choices. Stand your ground and checkout while the clerk tires to sort out what has happened (or not happened), leaving those in line behind you fuming.
The second choice is to go over and stand behind the usually empty “customer service” desk and wait for a store employee to finally respond. Employees aren’t happy, since they don’t appear to have a specific protocol for dealing with these errors. It’s extra work, and can be complicated.
I feel like we are often put in the position of deciding whether it’s worth complaining about errors, balancing our time, the inconvenience to other shoppers, the hassle it causes for store employees, etc. In the case of that wine discount, we were talking real money, so there wasn’t any question. In other cases, where the potential error might be only a dollar, you have to weigh your options.
For Safeway, though, there seems to be no down side to the systematic errors. The consumer complains, store employees confirm the mistake and give them their money back. When consumers don’t complain, the store pockets the unclaimed discount without potential penalty. What’s worse, as far as we can tell, there isn’t any regular system for internal reporting of errors. This means the process is rigged against the consumer and Safeway misses an opportunity to correct the problem.
Hey, how about some legislation to put some teeth behind our rights as consumers in such situations? In the meantime, I’m inclined to make a complaint to the Office of Consumer Protection regarding Safeway’s unfair and deceptive trade practices.