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Advocates to Grocers: Stop Digital Discrimination of Unplugged Seniors

A coalition of national consumer organizations is urging leading supermarket chains to stop discriminating against senior citizens and low income shoppers who cannot take advantage of a new wave of advertised in-store digital-only discounts because millions of them do not have internet access or smartphones.

Read about the issue in our original story.

In a letter to the presidents of a dozen large supermarket chains, the consumer groups (Consumer Action, Consumer Reports, Consumer World, National Consumers League, and PIRG) are urging them to help bridge the digital divide by adopting a workaround so unplugged shoppers are charged the same lower sale prices as connected customers are.

“It’s digital discrimination, and the most vulnerable people are being shut-out of these online discounts at the worst possible time given record high inflation,” explained Edgar Dworsky, founder of Consumer World. “Big supermarkets need to provide an offline alternative to the digitally-disconnected so they can reap the same savings that connected shoppers enjoy.”

In the past couple of years, more and more weekly specials advertised by some supermarkets for meat, fish, poultry, produce, and store brand items are so-called “digital-only deals” (see sample ads). They require shoppers to first go online to electronically “clip” the offers to add them to their loyalty card account to be charged the sale price in the store.


Sample supermarket FAQ about digital-only offers:

Q. Can I still take advantage of these coupons if I don’t have a smart phone or a computer?

A. These coupons are only available electronically. Manufacturers continue to offer paper coupons through local newspapers.

But, since 25-percent of seniors don’t use the internet and 39-percent don’t have smartphones according to a 2021 study by the Pew Research Center, they are effectively shut-out of these deals. Similarly, 43-percent of low income households lack broadband internet access.

Digital-only discounts can provide significant savings for connected shoppers. But an unplugged shopper, for example, could pay $9 more for this package of steak, or $15 more for a 15-pound Thanksgiving turkey because he or she cannot clip the required digital coupon.

Digital only items

Even on smaller purchases, the amount a digitally-disconnected shopper overpays can be significant. In the following examples, he or she is paying twice the price for this tub of store brand ice cream and 75-percent more for this carton of eggs.

ice cream and eggs

This week, stores across the country are offering digital-only sale items like these.

Not only are people without internet access shut-out of digital discounts, so are the one-in-four shoppers who despite having online access say they may lack the technical ability to use a supermarket’s website or app, according to a recent survey by Consumer World.

The consumer groups have suggested five ways that supermarkets can offer an in-store offline alternative to digital-only deals to accommodate both the digitally-disconnected and the digitally-challenged shopper:

1. Utilize barcoded clip or click store coupons in circulars so the customer can choose their preferred redemption method (e.g., Vons and The Giant Company).

2. Empower cashiers to charge the digital price upon request.

3. Empower customer service personnel to provide refunds for unredeemed digital discounts.

4. Offer physical store coupons next to digital-only deals for those who did not/could not electronically “clip” the offer (e.g., H-E-B).

5. Install coupon kiosks where digital coupons can be added to one’s account in-store (e.g., ShopRite and Food Lion).

The letter to supermarket executives was sent on November 15 to the following chains: Kroger, Albertsons, Stop & Shop, Star Market/Shaw’s, Ralphs, QFC, Jewel Osco, Randalls, Fred Meyer, King Soopers, Smart & Final, and Safeway.

Feel free to offer your opinion of whether supermarkets should make accommodations for seniors and others who don’t have internet access or smartphones to be able to pay the digital price for advertised sale items in stores.

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122 thoughts on “Advocates to Grocers: Stop Digital Discrimination of Unplugged Seniors”

  1. Follow the money! The brand PNL looks at a trade line item and a promotional line item. The trade line focuses on discounts at the shelf by retailer while the promotional focuses on direct to shopper activities such as coupons and advertising that can drive sales in totality. Good promotions amplify the impact of the trade spend.

    The desire to democratize access to discounts isn’t the primary concern of manufacturers or retailers.

    To me, the real question is how do we increase knowledge of HOW the income challenged can access the discounts in ways that aren’t reliant on digital devices nor ancient coupon distribution methods? What is the alternative?

  2. Its not that I am technically challenged at 66, its that the digital coupons most of the time do not work when you get to the store and try to use them. Either the internet at the stores are being compromised or the app is not working or…. This digital coupon thing is outright dishonest. And the checkers are not able to give you the coupon price . STOP DIGITAL COUPONS FOR ALL.

    • I ran into a lot of problems using digital coupons. But if I just explain the problem to the cashier, they either give me the discount or call in a manager. Even if you are very plugged in, you may not be able to get the digital coupons to work. So you have to speak up to make sure you are getting the price they advertised. The employees I have spoken to are very familiar with this problem.

      • In a dream world, that would work. In the real world, I’ve tried multiple times to get the correct price – rebate – etc and been given responses of “that is taken care of in your account” and “you should have gotten an e-mail” plus other just go away and stop bothering me replies. Never a fix!

  3. Ed,
    I read your story “Shrinkflation” story in today’s NY TIMES. I see a photo of you on this website holding up some Breyer’s Ice Cream cartons. I have noted the size of these cartons used to be 1/2 gallon and now they keep on shrinking almost every year while the price increases.

    Another thing I have noticed is that where a lot of orange juice producers typically sold their juice in 1/2 gallon cartons, they now sell their juice in 59 ounce and 52 ounce cartons. I guess the producers figure that most consumers do not know that 1/2 gallon equals 64 ounces and not 59 or 52 ounces. To keep changing their package sizes, I would think that it would cost the food and juice producers a considerable sum of money.

  4. Kroger in addition to the digital divide reduced the number of electric carts that so many seniors need…are they saying our money isn’t good enough??

  5. At age 84, I have used H.E.B. digital coupons from their beginning.At this point my phone shows savings of $4939.36 since inception.I use these coupons to stock up as I shop to inventory not need.I find the coupons easy to use and if one does not work, they will give me digital credit over the phone with ease.

  6. Digital coupons may be part of merchants’ data harvesting and data resale business.

    Even when using an app on a smart- device does not require registration (eg provide an email address), apps can collect much useful info (supposedly anonymised ) about the user and transmit it to the merchant who can then resell it to data brokers.

    I once complained to T-mobile that their prepaid-plan customers received fewer benefits (eg inability to carry over unused minutes) than those on post-paid plans (which require credit checks because payment was due after using the services.) This made little sense because the risk of non-payment was zero with prepaid while greater than zero with post-paid. A customer service rep inadvertently told me that the difference in benefits was due to t-mobile not knowing anything about a pre-paid customer. all that personal information about consumers is worth big money.

  7. I dislike having TV network shows like ABC’s GMA and The View having QR Coded selections. OK, I have a Smart Phone, butt I have absolutely no idea how to make it work.

  8. I am an 84 year old consumer who does not have a smart phone. Am considering not shopping at Safeway because of the electronic need and cannot really use the clip there.

  9. Just do away with digital coupons altogether. What is the point, anyway? Why are there multiple levels of coupons, some tied in to the frequent shopper account (price plus in the case of Shop Rite), and the harder to access digital coupons? I am a senior and know my way around my smart phone, but do not plan coupons before entering the store. As I peruse the aisles and see an item with a digital coupon, I have to stop, login to the store account, and download the coupon. This is time consuming and inconvenient to say the least. And, this is assuming the store has a strong WIFI signal to utilize!

  10. I have a smartphone and some computer savvy, but I can rarely get the digital coupons to work for me! Today the store clerk had to manually add the digital discount that was only showing on the store shelf. It was not listed in the store’s app, which I am able to use. Very frustrating! And the clerk said I’m not the only one who has that problem.

  11. I have complained to Safeway about their “scan this code with your smartphone” deals that are bogus due to the huge number of people who don’t have a smartphone, or who don’t see the small print instructing them that that’s the ONLY way they can get the deal.
    As to the other topic, one problem overall with this ongoing shrinkage issue is that people will still buy the product anyway: “Oh well…what are you gonna do?”
    As boomers with a memory of the ’60s will attest, protest works, and the best protest in this case is to stop buying the product and state this in your reviews. The ONLY reason this goes on is because consumers continue to throw their money at these criminal corporations. It is obvious a significant number of people just refuse to go without their beloved product — especially junk foods and snack foods. Maybe these things really have, as it has been accused, been formulated to be addictive.
    I guess one advantage to growing up poor is learning to do without, and it not being such a huge deal. Everyone who posts here is just as capable of posting on a review site and stating there that you will no longer buy the product.
    Also, for what reason do you CLOSE comments? As long as the article is up, then comments should be allowed. That’s why my shrinkage comments have been left here.

    • ANY laws created are there to protect the corporations (also known as the “job creators”) not the individuals….individuals do not have lobbyist.Amen.

  12. This digital coupon scam creates a club of exclusivity. Another concern is, how can price increases always be blamed on inflation when companies are claiming record profits. It is corporate greed.

  13. I have worked on computers and the internet almost 30 years and consider myself highly intelligent and computer “savvy” but still have trouble using these coupons. It’s not just about age, it’s that the coupons themselves are not easy to find or use and often don’t even work when someone who figures out how to use them presents them. The programs are not user-friendly to anyone, period. It’s not only about age but it also discriminates against the handicapped. My dyslexic husband would not be up to handling them. And it’s a big myth that all young people are somehow whizzes when it comes to computers and the internet. Many of them are not up to handling this stuff either and bumble along like the rest of us. They just don’t complain about it because they don’t remember a time when things made more sense!!

  14. I was at Gerritys supermarket in Clarks Summit PA. They changed wholesalers recently and went to electronic coupons. I scanned the code on the shelf to get $1.50 off Finish dishwasher tablets. The first site I went to from the code must have been ‘sponsored’ and I clicked on it. It wanted me to register and input my credit card for verification of location. It said the card would not be charged but a few sentences later it said after 7 day free trial card would be charged $49.95. I was able to get to the actual coupon site but was too disgusted by then to deal with it. Store employees later told me not to click on shelf codes but to use the store kiosk to access the coupons.

  15. New to your site; very interested in saving $, running a household on a budget. My grandblessings keep me operating my smart phone.

    So, I do use digital coupons, but it’s a hassle. And on almost every trip to the store, I have to go back and ask for an adjustment when the digital coupon doesn’t work. Being a long-term coupon clipper, I can tell you that there are hardly any paper coupons worth clipping these days. And, of course, they are available only to those who get the Sunday paper.

    In the list of grocery stores you contacted, I don’t see Meijer’s name. Please contact them. And keep up the fight! We seniors need all the help we can get.

  16. Guests at Target can request “PRICEMATCH” at both self-checkout and at the registers. PRICEMATCH means Target will match their own online price for an item.
    There are rules/restrictions etc but this can be a great way to save money.
    I was trying to arrange consumer field trips to supermarkets etc as my neighborhood is a NORC, to get folks comfortable with self-checkout as it has many benefits and so many businesses now utilize them.

    • No bueno! to self checkouts. They’re replacing cashiers with machines that aren’t invested in the system like people are (no taxes, no contributions to social security, etc.)

  17. I just made the same complaint to Safeway. I’m well-acquainted with the digital world, but cruising for digital coupons is a huge waste of time. First you have to see all of the digital coupons and compare appropriate savings, then you have to remember which ones you clicked, then go to the store and find everything in addition to your regular groceries. And hope that the item is in stock.

    PS – If I go to the store, find that the digital coupon has big savings for something I want but did not get a Digital coupon, I pass it up. They can keep it.

  18. I ran into something like this recently. I couldn’t figure out how to get my phone to work with their sale sign for grated cheese in Safeway recently. So, I just took a picture of the sign and when I went to check out, I told the cashier that was the best I could do. She said “no problem” and she gave me my sale price!
    Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

  19. Imagine how digital discrimination affects seniors who must choose a new Medicare Supplement or Medicare Part D Prescription Drug Plan each year. Most just stay with the same plan rather than searching for the most affordable either because they have no access to the internet or lack the technical access to search for the most affordable plan. Experiment for yourself by going to the website ‘Medicare.gov’ to Find plans and begin a search for Medigap Plans, Medicare Prt D Plans, and Medicare Advantage Plans

    • speaking from experience, Medicare Advantage plans are the way to go for some people. You have co-pays for dr visits $5 for primary care, and $35 for specialists. No part D drug plan that keeps getting more pricey all the time. Some money is taken from your SS directly. It’s worth checking into..it’s pretty straightforward, savings can be good. It works for healthy individuals. Having a co-pay isn’t the end of the world. You can try it out for a year. If you decide it’s not for you, you can go back to your original plan with no penalties.

  20. Thank you for such great work on consumer protection.
    I noticed this years ago when Target started digital only deals. The first thing I though was what about my mom and the other older people who didn’t use phones? This is pure age discrimination IMO. Thanks for fighting the good fight for equal treatment.

  21. I have shopped for years at Albertsons and use my local paper coupons every week.
    I do not understand all the info on cell phones. So, I have decided to just quit shopping at my local store and go elsewhere. Where they do not discriminate on Senior Citizens. One of the reasons I subscribe to the local papers is for the coupons. Now, I may have to stop my subscription. How disappointing this is for all people who do not have cell phones. They all costs money, you know.

  22. I have called Kroger’s several time, posted on their FB Page and wrote a letter stating that my 83 widowed mother is not iphone savvy and can not take a take advantage of the digital coupons. I told them seniors on a fixed income are in most need of the additional savings and to just make the digital coupons part of the normal Kroger Card savings. Their response was “it is optional and she decided not to participate in getting the app”. What a cop out from a Fortune 500 Company

  23. Thank you for your efforts Edgar. What a nice growing collection of comments too. When I shop at Marianos and Jewel in Chicago, I have to take pictures of the item’s price tag on the shelf. This is because one or more of the items I’m about to purchase will likely show up as the wrong price at checkout. Then I have to negotiate with staff over what I’m eventually charged. It’s a shameful practice that these stores (and others) can’t keep their SKUs up to date. It feels like deliberate negligence. It is not the job of the consumer to have to hold them accountable AND hope for an price correction in a timely manner. Isn’t there a better way?

  24. The Stores that do not accommodate the most vulnerable are a disgrace. It is awful that these companies are so unethical and money hungry. What happened to decency. Those companies that take advantage of seniors and low income families should be boycotted. Shame on them!!!

  25. I don’t think requiring widely available and widely used devices to participate in a program is descriminatory. All have equal opportunity to use it. Even the poor. It is not difficult for anyone to get a smart phone or tablet. Even homeless people have them. Simply a matter of priorities and willingness to learn new things.

    Distribution of advertising and coupons costs money. Doing so digitally makes it less expensive, so it is reasonable that a company would stop using costly methods and adopt newer technologies.

  26. As a Sr., I avoid any Grocer that has digital newspaper ads! Safeway is the worst for this practice. Thankfully, I live in an area of several choices within a 6 mile radius.

  27. the Meijer’s store in Michigan issued me a plastic card so I can get the
    digital savings…over the past several yrs have tried with this card only
    to call corp. office that it didn’t work…sssooooooooooo if it’s not working
    for several items I refuse to purchase whatever I have of other items &
    telling the manager I’m leaving the full cart with him.
    ……( at least I had gotten my daily exercise in)

  28. I’m a senior and I use the Albertsons app on my iPhone when shopping, but the “Deals” showing up on the app are often incorrect. Unless you pay attention at the cash register, you’ll find yourself paying full price for something that was promoted on the app for 75% less or free. The cashier told me that the app doesn’t connect well when using it in the store—that I must first “click” on the deals on the app at home using my internet connection so they are linked to my account—then they will show up at the store when I go to pay using my phone number. I’m very comfortable using computers, but even for me, this is a huge hassle at the store and completely user unfriendly. The cashier said d he cannot count the number of complaints Albertsons gets re the digital coupons, but they still promote it.

  29. What really torks me is the buy 5 of an item to get the discount. I am not running a restaurant or an orphanage.

  30. When a store clerk refuses to charge me the digital price, even though I’m disconnected, I simply leave the item(s) at the register and make the store return them to the shelf, freezer, or whatever. I sometimes do this repeatedly to get my point across. This takes up time for the employees which costs the store money. The clerks don’t care; they’re being paid by the hour. When stores realize their policies are costing them money and customers, they’ll eventually get the picture. I’ve been able to “condition” a few stores to give me the digital price without me even asking. Lesson: Don’t mess with old people!

  31. Some stores (i.e. ShopRite) have digital kiosks in the stores. Customers are free to open an account and utilize the system as easily as using an at-home computer or a smartphone. They’re big enough so that even the vision-impaired should be able to utilize the system. Go to customer service and ask for help if you need it.

  32. Digital coupons are exclusionary, discriminatory and disenfranchising. Stores are practicing ableism. ageism, and classism. This practice needs to stop. I take managers to task when all that is offered are digital coupons. I do not own a smartphone. This discriminates against people who have low vision, who do not have enough time to spend looking for a coupon (you have to scroll and scroll and scroll), they don’t always work, they assume everyone is connected to the Internet (which is a false assumption). I had an evening manager tell me I could go to the public library to download the coupons. Right, to save 50 cents I will drive across town to the nearest library. How clueless and dense are some of these people.

    These are barriers to access — access to equitable pricing. This needs to stop. I am glad that you are sending letters. I have tried to talk to managers and tried to go through Safeway’s upper managers in their corporate office. They do not return calls and could care less about this. Their stance is that this is the way of the future.

    Time to petition the FTC — this is pure discrimination. Only the elite can participate and get those prices. I have had cashiers shame me that I don’t have a digital coupon and some will state they cannot give me me the digital coupon price. “I can’t help it you don’t have a smartphone.” That’s after I have already talked to the managers at Safeway and Kroger and they assured me that if a customer asks, the cashier needs to honor that.

    This is also very divisive — the haves and the have nots. I am glad to see that a formal letter has been sent. We need more consumer advocates.

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