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Jim Kenyon: A Number of Problems

As someone who is extremely short on recall skills (please don’t ask for my car license plate number), I take great pride in being able to recite my Co-op Food Stores membership number on-demand in the checkout line.

After years of practice, I no longer even give it a second thought. “Card number, please,” the cashier asks.

I don’t even have to stop unloading the packages of frozen peas from my shopping cart. I just rattle off the six-digit number. Next to learning the Gettsyburg Address by heart in fifth grade, I consider it my all-time greatest memorization feat.

But now the Co-op’s management says that reciting your membership number to the cashier isn’t good enough. The Co-op wants to see the actual plastic card that bears your name and number.

What in the name of Paul Newman’s all natural marinade is going on here?

Apparently, some shoppers are claiming to be Co-op members when they aren’t. They “borrow” the number of a relative or friend to avoid paying the Co-op’s one-time $50 membership fee.

Or worse.

Some shoppers have become expert eavesdroppers. They casually stand behind one of the Co-op’s 20,000 members in the checkout line and listen until an unsuspecting soul reveals his number out loud to the cashier. (I wonder if this was how Edward Snowden got his start.)

The snooper then uses the pilfered number on future shopping trips.

“It’s unfortunate,” said Allan Reetz, the Co-op’s communications director. “Some people take advantage of things they are not due.”

I wouldn’t have thought the Co-op’s clientele includes a criminal element, but anything to prevent identity theft, I guess.

Still, on the surface, the crackdown didn’t make a lot of sense to me. The Co-op isn’t a members-only club. Anyone can shop at its four grocery stores in the Upper Valley. There’s not a lot to be gained by using someone else’s card number.

Until now.

The Co-op is developing a new marketing strategy.

“Every week, members will find hot deals on many popular products,” according to its website. “On sale items, members will get a deeper discount than non-members. On other items, a members-only sale price might apply while everyone else pays the regular price.”

This week, for example, members can save an additional 40 cents on a box of granola bars and $2 on a bottle of California organic extra virgin olive oil. Another promotion in the works is something the Co-op calls “discount days.” On this upcoming Saturday, for instance, members can get 10 percent knocked off their total bill (excluding alcohol) at the cash register.

“Discounts given at the registers require you to present your Co-op membership card. Reciting your number from memory will not be sufficient,” warns the stores’ website.

Fortunately, the Co-op recognizes that many longtime customers may have lost or chucked their membership cards long ago. New cards are available at the stores’ service desks. (This month, 7,000 or so replacement cards have been issued.)

Signs displayed around the stores also mention that only shoppers who have accumulated 10 or more Co-op shares are eligible for members-only discounts. I’m not exactly sure how members are supposed to figure out their number of shares, but it’s connected to the amount of fair trade coffee beans (just kidding) they’ve purchased over the years. From the prices that the Co-op charges, I think it’s safe to say that anyone who has bought a couple of lamb chops is probably vested.

The Co-op, which has been around for nearly 80 years, isn’t exactly known for bargains. I think most people shop at Co-op stores because they’re conveniently located (anything to avoid another trip to West Lebanon’s 12A) and they’re known for offering high quality (albeit often pricey) products.

It can cost more to buy locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables or meats that don’t come from factory farms in the Midwest. But for some people, it’s worth the extra few dollars.

People also like that the Co-op is not part of a huge conglomerate based in Belgium (i.e. Hannaford Supermarkets).

With Co-op stores handling nearly 4,000 transactions a day, the change that requires members to hand their card over to cashiers is for the best, said Reetz. “Having that card allows us to properly credit purchases to the appropriate member,” he said. “There is no human error involved.”

I guess human error must be stamped out at all costs (look at the use of instant replay in the NFL), but I kind of liked reciting a number, not becoming one.