CA court nixes zip code collection at the register

Lucia Buccico waits to pay for her purchases at the checkout counter of a Wal-Mart store in North Miami, Fla.


Tess Vigeland: Here's one more commandment that I'd add to the mix: Thou shalt not ask me for my zip code when I'm paying for my merchandise! Why, oh why, cashier, do you need to know that?

Chris Moran: The most common reason they ask for it is for market research, for knowing where people who are shopping there are coming from.

Chris Moran is the senior editor at Consumerist.com.

Moran: Some of them are reselling that information, some of them aren't. And you know some of these places go so far as to ask you for your address or your phone number.

But here in California, they can't ask us that anymore. A woman sued Williams-Sonoma for pestering her with the zip code question. This week the California Supreme Court ruled in her favor, overturning two lower court rulings. Moran says this week's decision relied on protections already in place for California consumers.

Moran: In California, there was a law passed saying that retailers were not allowed to ask for private address information, and the California Supreme Court decided that a zip code -- since it's part of that address -- falls under that existing law.

Of course, the woman could've just said she didn't want to give that number out. And retailers can still ask for identification when you hand over your credit card. But they can't record that information.

For all of you who don't live in the Golden State, Moran offers this tip:

Moran: One of our editors has historically given the zip code for Wrigley Field in Chicago.

That number is 60613.

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I've long heard that asking for a zip code or phone number was the store's insidious (and deceptive) method of "asking" for permission to send junk mail or other offers, since providing the information could be misrepresented as the consumer granting permission to be added to a marketing list, with the credit card issuer providing the full address. I've never heard corroboration of this myth. (That might make a good Marketplace story, didn't Stacey do a story on marketing demographics?)

I used to ask cashiers WHY they needed that information? Once, maybe twice, a cashier said it was for verification of the card owner. I explained that I was signing for the credit card, or using a debit PIN, no further validation was needed. ONCE, only once, providing a bogus zip code (the one in which I was born) caused the card to be turned down. (I used alternate payment means then.) On all other occasions, that explanation turned out to be bogus. (Not the cashier's fault, that's just what they're told to say.)

Generally, the cashier doesn't KNOW the real purpose for gathering the information, and I don't harass the employee for that. I just decline to provide the information. If the cashier doesn't know how to complete the transaction without it, or can't, I give my birth ZIP code, or the area code-specific directory assistance number, [area code]-555-1212. (You may've noticed that phone numbers in movies are often in the 555 exchange.) In the last 10 years, I've never found that a false ZIP or that generic number scuttled a transaction.

All that said, some stores do remember customers based on their phone number, and different retail locations of the same store can recall that information for me when I buy somethin. It's a nice convenience, since if I have a problem with the purchase, they can recall the transaction without a receipt. (Costco is superb at this, they can recall all my transactions for the last year and process a return based on that digital record.) This is not necessarily a bad thing. I just make a point when I provide this information to specify, "please tag my information for NO mailings, NO marketing contact, NO sharing with other companies." Do they honor that...? Well, usually.

I agree with all the people who are willing to give their area code and that giving your zip code is in essence a vote. If the departments stores want to come to my city and invest money, create jobs, why would I be against that? I always try and would always prefer to purchase in the city I live in so that the revenue and taxes are brought back into my community instead of a community I don't live in. Having high end shopping centers develop in a community also makes your community more attractive to people which in turn would increase property values and provide more revenue for the city to work with. In my opinion there is no loss for giving away your zip code when purchasing. But, I would be very much against them releasing or selling my complete address and I would very much be against them releasing that information in connection with my credit card information. Basically I want them to use the zip code to know where to market and where to build their next location.

I want them to know what area I live in, especially if I have to drive a long way to the store. I want them to build their next one in my neighborhood - shortening my drive and employing some of my neighbors.

@ M Wilcox The purchase is my vote. I voted for the service/product that I purchased. If I want something of value that they have, it is a cash purchase. If they want something of value that I know, pay me as a consultant. Let Radio Shack figure out why I am driving 700 miles from the only radio shack in 14141 to purchase a cable adapter.

Cashiers aren't paid enough to be your punching bags. Just say you don't want to or give them a fake one. Don't harass them. And the people in line behind you aren't impressed anyway.

This 'market research' asks for the shopper's zip code not only see where there next store might be, but also to correlate it to the name you just gave them when you swiped your debit card.

With those two simple data fields populated, you'll soon be getting the latest Land's End or Victoria's Secret junk mail catalogs.

When cashiers ask me for a phone number, I ask why. They say it's for market research on where customers are from. I tell them that my area code is not from the area I live so it's useless but I'll give them my zip code. They aren't interested in that. I refuse to give my telephone number out.

Why would you fight this? A lot of stores ask this info so they can figure out where to build their next store. I live in a big metro area, and if there's a store a like across town, I'll happily tell them where I live in the hopes that they'll come my way. It also helps them make the store more tailored to my interests. A ZIP code is a vote.

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