If you’ve shopped in an actual store any time in the last 10 years or so, you’ve probably experienced that uncomfortable moment at the checkout counter when the cashier asks for your ZIP code. It feels odd & a bit intrusive, since it doesn’t really seem relevant to whatever you’re buying. Soliciting your email address makes sense, but ZIP codes don’t seem like they’d be too helpful in trying to make you a repeat customer. So why do stores ask for your ZIP code?
Most of the time, it’s a stealthy form of marketing. When a store has both your name (usually from your debit or credit card) and your ZIP code, they can pull more personal info about you (address, phone number, past purchases, etc.). While not all stores do it, they can end up sending you junk mail, and, what’s worse, they can also sell your info to third parties.
Sometimes, shops will say your ZIP code is mandatory to complete a transaction. But a court in Massachusetts ruled ZIP codes are personal information shielded by consumer protection laws, after Urban Outfitters got sued for their mandatory ZIP policy (other stores, like Michaels & OfficeMax, have also faced similar complaints).
But ZIP code gathering isn’t always a way to jam unsolicited sale flyers in your mailbox. By tracking sales tied to specific locations, stores can tell which products sell better in which areas, which could ultimately benefit you, the consumer, through better stocked shelves or more variety. But if you’re paying by card & want to maintain your privacy, you absolutely can simply decline to share it. Some credit cards, however (like American Express), do expect stores to ask for a ZIP code as a means of fraud protection.
The one place it’s actually good to be asked for your ZIP code is gas stations. Whenever you fill up, the pump usually prompts you to enter your ZIP code, not to gather data on you but to deter credit card theft. Thieves will test to see if a stolen card works by performing an automated transaction to avoid face-to-face interactions with cashiers who might catch them in the act.
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