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Ho Ho NO: Unplugged Shoppers Face Higher Grocery Prices

UPDATE: On January 12, a New Jersey assemblyman filled the first bill in the country requiring retailers who offer “digital coupons” to also provide paper ones of equal value to those customers who do not have internet access.

The millions of seniors who don’t use the internet (25% according to Pew Research Center) or who don’t have a smartphone (39%) are being charged substantially higher grocery prices than their more tech-savvy counterparts because they cannot clip the e-coupons necessary to be charged the advertised sale prices in the store. Unplugged lower income shoppers face the same roadblock. (See our recent story.)

Look at just the front page of this ad from a Washington, DC Safeway store right before Christmas advertising in-store prices. Note how much more an unplugged (“non-digital” in red) shopper pays versus a digital shopper:


Safeway non-digital prices

Just on those five items being purchased in-store, a non-digital shopper even if a member of the store’s loyalty program would have paid $67.03 compared to just $42.73 for a shopper who was able to clip the digital offers before going to the store. That is almost $25 more for the very same items.

Similarly, at this Star Market in Boston, an unplugged shopper would pay over $29 more for just these seven items.


Star Market non-digital prices

In November, five national consumer organizations including Consumer World called on a dozen leaders of the supermarket industry to make an offline alternative available in their stores to disconnected shoppers so everyone could have an equal opportunity to pay the same discounted prices. The response has been silence from them or a bit of misleading PR-spin.

Now it is your turn to speak up and speak out telling supermarket executives how “digital-only” sale prices unfairly discriminate against the millions of shoppers without internet access or smartphones. Urge those companies to make a new year’s resolution to find a way to offer their unplugged customers the same lower sale prices that more digitally-capable shoppers pay.

So… please consider sending an email to the CEOs of Albertsons Companies (which owns Acme, Albertsons, Carrs, Jewel Osco, Randalls, Safeway, Shaw’s, Star Market, Tom Thumb, and Vons), The Kroger Company (which owns Baker’s, City Market, Dillons, Foods Co., Fred Meyer, Food 4 Less, Frys, Gerbes, King Soopers, Kroger, Marianos, Metro Market, Payless, Pick ‘n Save, QFC, Ralphs, and Smiths), and Stop & Shop.

The Albertsons Companies: Vivek.Sankaran@Albertsons.com

The Kroger Co.: Rodney.McMullen@kroger.com

Stop & Shop: Gordon.Reid@stopandshop.com

Perhaps together we can help convince stores to treat all their shoppers equally and fight inflation a little more easily.

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38 thoughts on “Ho Ho NO: Unplugged Shoppers Face Higher Grocery Prices”

  1. In the past we had courtesy cards that allowed us to get discounts. This was a way of tracking our shopping habits. How is the online coupons better for tracking our shopping habits? I hate digital coupons. I use them but it takes me a half hour per store to check off my clip less coupons while I am still at home. Most of the time I either forget or don’t have the time. Plus, if you visit a store you had not anticipated of going to ahead of time, you are standing in the aisle hurriedly flipping through the website if you can even get wireless service to see if there is a coupon. I just hate them.

    • I’m with you on that. I’m 79 and have used Albertson’s digital coupons twice in the last 12 months. Both times I ended up handing the cashier my cellphone because I got hopelessly lost on clicking this and checking that, and I couldn’t even use their “speedy” self-service. How can this be beneficial for the store?

    • I hate them as well and in my location we only have one store that even offers, them kroger. But that’s the whole idea it’s much easier to pull out a rewards card and let them swipe it to give you the discount on everything at once then it is for you to find and click on those digital coupons. They are a nightmare. So many people find them such a hassle they’ve just given up using them and like I said that means there’s a lot less people receiving discounts because the people aren’t using the digital coupons. It’s a way to look as though you’re giving people money back but only if people have got the ability the savvy the time the know-how to take advantage of what it is that you appear to be giving instead of the discounts they used to give with the reward cards.

  2. As a DC resident who has no choice but to shop at Safeway, I can tell you that the “list price” on groceries is outrageous. With a few exceptions each week, the majority of sale prices are in line with normal prices, with digital offering a small additional discount. Meaning non-“sale” prices are inflated beyond a reasonable standard price. This effectively amounts to penalty, and buying items on “sale” are in fact avoiding a penalty or markup.

  3. I am 74, and I remember the “old” days when we were bombarded by paper coupons with double and triple values – usually received in the Sunday paper as inserts. I spent many an hour clipping and preparing for my shopping trips.

    Those have disappeared for the most part. I also used to have a Kroger card as a Senior citizen that gave me 5% off, and that was eliminated. Now it’s the digitals, which are only accessible by internet or cell phone.

    I still print off my list of digital coupons because sometimes the register doesn’t recognize the discount. The cashier will take the “word” of the inanimate object over mine, so I have to get out my paper copy and show the cashier before I can get the discount.

    This is discrimination against demographics based on the inability to access the internet, which often comes down to age, income, and geographical area. The behemoths of the grocery business need to be required to provide equal access to the same prices as those of us who are fortunate to have access.

  4. I agree that this is ridiculous and I hate having to check the digital coupons before purchasing. Sometimes, I forget and when I am in the store, I try to download them without success and have to go outside to complete the task. I am also upset to see that PriceChopper has started to send only one page of the flyer to their customers. On that piece of paper, it says that the complete flyer may be downloaded or you can get a copy of the entire flyer in the store.

  5. They don’t give a damn and you know it. All they’re doing is waiting for us old folks to die off. I happen to have a cell phone and I’m quite computer illiterate so this issue is a non-starter for just me. For my wife it was far more difficult but I’ve set up the necessary links for her to use coupons particularly at Shaw’s Supermarket.

    I most certainly will follow up with the links you have given. I am sure all we’re going to hear is crickets but at least put it out there. Maybe what they really need is some action from us folks who are used to civil rights and Vietnam demonstrations. Pull the Council of Aging bus up for a shopping trip and pick up all those you coupon items and go to the service desk or the manager and demand to get that price or you won’t leave the freaking store! Oh what a beautiful thing that would be on the evening news and if it’s ever done sign me up.

      • What a great idea! The AARP and the senior centers need to hear this one and spread the word! Busloads of seniors clogging up the stores and leaving all their groceries if they aren’t given the same prices as anyone else! I like it. We could use some good protests here. This year is the 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, after all.
        Shaw’s has the highest prices and a few good “specials”, usually the “digital coupon” items, then a number of special items listed together under “buy any 5 of these”. Usually I don’t need to buy 5 of those. Meat specials are often for large packages only. I hardly ever set foot in the store and feel sorry for those for whom Shaw’s is the only option.

  6. Wow Edgar, I think these are some of the most egregious examples you’ve posted yet! I can’t help but feel that there is some motive to this like the grocery store is trying to take advantage of shoppers who might be in a hurry and don’t clip coupons or something and seniors are paying for it as a by-product. It’s pretty obvious that they’re being significantly impacted by this.

    It wouldn’t be that hard to do what Food City does and have a little sheet of barcodes at each register that can be scanned to apply the coupons onto the purchase.

    I also think this problem is only going to get worse if Kroger and Albertson’s are allowed to merge. They already both wield a significant amount of power in the grocery store industry. To let them merge would be a travesty.

    I’ll be sending out emails today to the emails you listed.

  7. This is a tough call for me.

    My instinctive reaction is one of outrage: seniors on fixed incomes, who are most in need of discounts, are the very demographic that is most likely to be left out in the cold by digital coupons.

    And I hate that in so many aspects of life, you’re at a severe disadvantage unless you’re tech-literate and have a smartphone.
    Heck, even my local public library discriminates against patrons who don’t have smartphones, for no earthly reason.

    But on the other hand, grocery stores probably make a considerable sum by selling a voluminous amount of a shopper’s personal information, which they can’t obtain from regular clipped paper coupons. Same as with loyalty cards. As disgusting as that is, unfortunately, that’s capitalism. Unless it’s outlawed or successfully boycotted, this is the new status quo.

  8. I’ve noticed this happening at a chain pet supply store and a vitamin/supplement chain store.
    I recently had to buy a dog brush online and then pick it up in the store in order to save 50%. The in-store prices were twice as high as the advertised sale on their website.
    At the vitamin store it was much the same story; buy online and pick up in-store in order to save 20-30% over the price in the store.

  9. I’ve never heard of digital coupons. So if I buy groceries at Fred Meyers or Albertsons and give them my phone number, that’s not good enough?

    • Nancy…. Look carefully at your local Frey Meyer or Albertsons weekly supermarket circular. You will see some items that say “digital offer” or “digital coupon” or similar wording. Those prices are in-store prices but ONLY if you go online first into the digital coupon section of the company’s website, and add that item/coupon to your account. Your loyalty card does NOT automatically give you the “digital only” price.

      • I have given up on Fred Meyers. Losing money due to digital coupons and the lack of employees at the check out stand. I switched to Winco.

  10. You can do everything right with digital coupons, and they still don’t work. My 78-year-old mother spends at least an hour a week going through the Safeway ads and applying her “Just for You” offers. When she gets to check out and scans her card, they’re almost never in the computer system, even though she has a printout of everything she added to her card. She watches the prices ring up and then either has to deal with it at the register, or even after doing that, finds more mistakes and has to walk over to customer service and sort it out there. They’re usually very nice about it, but she shouldn’t have to do that. It makes me not want to shop at Safeway at all because it’s too much of a hassle, and it kind of feels like a scam, but I’m fortunate enough to have other options where I live and I know not everyone does.

      • It’s not his mom – it’s very buggy, at least at my Safeway. I’ll try to scan the coupons in the store and they rarely work; the item “isn’t in the system” or some such. So I have to type it in to search for it, i.e. more time wasted.

        And sometimes it just doesn’t work at all. I recall one time in particular, around the holidays, and I wanted to buy prime rib that was HIGHLY on sale with the digital coupon. Kept trying it, it didn’t work. Finally asked an employee, and he said “oh yeah, it hasn’t been working, just tell them at the front.”

        I’m with Alissa – totally feels like a scam. Oh, and there are often times I’m in the store and there’s no cell service – kind of hard to scan a coupon in that case.

  11. This is nonsense.If I want to get the deals offered for downloading apps to a cell phone,it’s my problem to get a cell phone and do that.Maybe I’ll get a cell phone and do that,but no reason a company can’t offer deals for those doing the cell phone apps,even if I decide to not do it.

    • As much as I hate to say it, I tend to agree with jrj90620. Okay, so at age 81, I am a bit of a techie, and I do know how to do these things, and I do like the discounts that I can add to my loyalty cards. What I question is whether we actually have a “right” to these discounts. It also seems to me that businesses do have a “right” to decide what kind of discounts they offer–and even to whom they offer them. Is it–or was it–fair to give us seniors discounts and not offer the same to non-seniors? Could the non-seniors protest that this is age discrimination? Who actually pays for our senior discounts?

      All that said, I think it would be a good-will gesture–and a good PR move–if businesses would be more willing to listen to concerns like those expressed in this edition of mouse print. But I will ask my fellow seniors: Would you be willing to give up the senior discounts in the interest of fairness to all?

      • I just couldn’t stop thinking about this, and I finally came to a conclusion: Edgar, I’m sorry, but you have not really thought this through. What you say about digital coupons could just as easily be said about paper ones. They discriminate, too. Maybe this is reducing it to the absurd, but they discriminate against people who don’t have scissors. Not so absurd, they discriminate against people who can’t or don’t have access to the ads that have the paper coupons. Or don’t have the time to spend clipping. Or, or, or, or.

        Historically, many people have ignored paper coupons, not wanting to be bothered. If they wanted to use coupons, they could take the steps necessary to do so–find the flyer, find the time, do the clipping. It’s the same with digital coupons. They can be ignored, or those who want to use them can take the steps necessary to do so.

        Some shopping options just aren’t available to everyone. Some people just don’t care about the options that are available. That’s the reality. That’s the way we are.

        One of my options is to shop at Aldi, and that’s where I do about 80% of my shopping. Low prices. Good quality. And…no coupons!

      • Hi Bill… I rarely use the term “digital coupons” because that is not what this story is about. I am not talking about online versions of manufacturers’ coupons like a dollar off Tide, or 55 cents off Lysol, that most people would call digital coupons. When I refer to “digital-only” deals or “digital offers” I mean advertised sale items that are traditionally promoted in weekly sale circulars, on store signs, or even in television ads but which require the shopper to first find and load the item into their account in the store’s app or website. These are often for fresh meat, produce, fish, poultry, and store brand items that are traditionally advertised at a stated price, such as “Sirloin Steak – $5.99/lb” that the store, not the manufacturer, decides to put on sale that particular week.

        Historically, items like this can be bought by anyone in the store, perhaps using a store’s loyalty card or entering your phone number at the checkout at worst. Now, many stores have made key, featured items like these “digital-only” so only those people with internet access or a smartphone can purchase at the advertised price. It is these types of offers that hit millions of often lower-income shoppers in the pocketbook because they are not plugged into the digital world. That is why consumer advocates have called on supermarket executives to often some simple offline alternatives for these shoppers.

  12. I think the digital coupons are the store’s way of advertising a very low price and not selling at that low price. The apps are made difficult to use just for that reason. The prices get your attention and that’s all the store really cares about.
    I tried using Albertsons app and the app would only load coupons for the week before which of course were expired. Why would expired coupons even be accessible on the app? I was never able to get the current coupons to load, no matter what day I tried.

  13. I find myself in a bit of a quandry on this one. I am 73yo and use both smartphone and computer to shop. I love the digital deals. If cost of getting online is the issue then there are lower price computers and internet services that can be found. There are government programs that help with the cost of service. If it’s a matter of trust associated with having your information online then, I don’t think anything would make a person use the internet.

    Another solution might be to issue special loyaty cards to people who don’t use digital devices. The card would identify that person as a non-digital shopper. Then if they bought a “digital deal” item, the store would reduce the cost by some amount. Probably not as much as the pure digital price, but, maybe 20% or 25% discount on those items. That would give both types of shoppers deals. Of course, programming would have to be figured out.

    I don’t know, just thinking. Whatever they would do, I hope the digital deals still remain intact.

    • Bravo Glen! I was going to basically say the same thing. I’m 70 & have been ‘online’ since 1997. I also own a smartphone (Samsung Galaxy that cost me $70) that I bought through my provider (PagePlus), my phone plan averages less than $7.00 a month. I buy a ‘pay as you go’ plan that gives me 400 minutes for $25.00 & only I have to re-up every 4 months (& everything carries over). My internet costs me $20.00 a month for over 100Mbps. Although I did resist joining Safeway’s ‘loyalty club’ for a long time because of the privacy issue, I broke down & joined because of the savings. I usually saved over $30 on every weekly shopping trip, sometimes more. Also, at Safeway (where most stores have free wifi), if you have a smartphone but no computer, you can scan all of the digital coupons to your account through the paper ad that all stores have available.
      And as Glen said there are plenty of programs out there for low-income seniors to pay for smartphones, computers, internet, etc.

      • Thanks, Gert. Sometimes I have a good idea. As my wife would say…”even a broken clock is right twice a day”. I am a retired Kroger employee. Worked for 21 years. I have had their loyalty card for most of that time. Our HR dept simply turned in my card # when I got it and I got a 10% discount on all private lable products. Now, as a retiree, I still get the discount. Along with all of the deals associated with having the card. I say that because I think it would be possible to program a card to give discounts like that to others.

    • I think its time to be honest – these cards are nothing more than a surveillance device. They aren’t interested in those who do not have a computer or SmartPhone otherwise we would all get the discounts. The only reason to tie savings to technology is to be able to surveil the customer base.

      They want those of us who are “hooked” into the internet in order to monitor and analyze buying habits so they can try to increase profits by targeting specific audiences. They really don’t care about those at the lower end of the income scale or those who may not be technologically savvy.

  14. I’m a younger millennial and plenty techie. This is at least as much a privacy issue as a tech / age issue. They want people to create accounts and use the app so they can track everything. As Andrew in DC notes, it’s “penalty” pricing if you don’t use the app.

    I think of it as a “privacy tax.” Same thing with Walgreens and CVS, the major drugstore chains, for example. In general, these big corporations push you to opt in to their mass surveillance and analytics programs – which give them further insights into how to manipulate our behavior – and if you don’t, you’ll pay for it.

    Some shops charge more to use a credit card – this is the opposite, charging more for the privacy of cash.

    • Totally agree. I still believe in privacy although it is almost impossible to find anymore. I never thought of it as “paying for privacy”, but you are correct. If we don’t use a store card, we pay more for products.

      I just reviewed Kroger’s new “privacy” policy – 26 pages of what they can do with your information. I was shocked at the ways in which “my” information could be used even though I knew basic ways – so much more in these privacy policies that most people never read. Frightening.

      I am going to reassess the use of my Kroger card based on the point of view that I am “paying for my privacy” if I don’t use it. Thanks for the idea.

  15. Don’t reward the stores that engage in this despicable behavior with your business. Take it to a store, like Trader Joe’s for instance, that doesn’t engage in this kind of behavior penalizing those who are unconnected.

    I’ve had to become an expert shopper due to a disability and limited income. The glory days of “sales” and coupons seem to be over. The show “Extreme Couponing” changed the landscape for those of us who clipped coupons and looked for good sales. While ecoupons used to help, now they’re only offering a few cents off an inflated price.

    Kroger and Von’s, the two stores that want to merge, if the government allows it and I pray they don’t, have inflated their prices on everything in the store. It’s outrageous, unnecessary and flat-out gouging. Customers won’t forget this behavior.

    Shop only sales. Eliminate all unnecessary items from your list and pantry. Buy only what you need. One day this will be over, but until then, shop wisely and cook more.

    • This is exactly what I do at Kroger and Meijer. I only buy sale items from the ad or discounted items, like soon to be expired produce or otherwise clearance items. Neither store gets any of my ‘real’ shopping, I buy everything else I need at Aldi or Sav a Lot. We used to have another grocery that used loyalty cards but if you told the cashier you forgot yours at home they would scan the generic one at their station. I never did ‘remember’ mine!

    • Jim… if you are reading this story, you HAVE internet access! As concerned and informed consumers you can advocate for those who cannot.

  16. I shop at a local Meijer store. Today instead of getting coupons they normally send me They sent a brochure telling me to scan with my phone or go online to receive the coupons

  17. I don’t consider myself UN-tech Savvy, but I’ve been explained FIVE TIMES now at Pick-n-Save on how to use their digital coupons and I, for the LIFE of me, do NOT understand how to use the digital coupons!!
    I was so tired of cutting coupons AND cutting coupons PLUS having to use a card but now, let’s throw in another step of just plain old inconvenience.
    I don’t need the hassle but sure could use the savings!!!
    Thanks for the links!!!

  18. You forgot to include Harris-Teeter in the list of Kroger owned grocery stores. HT is very big in the Carolinas and Virginia and some other states in the southeast. A much-loved chain out of Charlotte, we were very annoyed when Kroger bought it about 10 years ago. Many disadvantages not related to the digital coupons. But yes—my old phone can’t add on more apps or update and they updated the HT app in November so I can’t read the sales online (I do get the paper with Wednesday HT sales insert) but I specifically bought a gift card for someone’s present because the newspaper ad said you’d earn 200 extra fuel points if you bought gift cards and my receipt did not show the bonus. I took it to CS and the very nice guy said he could go back later and add it for me and I noticed yesterday that he had done that (many CS people probably wouldn’t have). But it did not help me with gas purchase the day I bought the gift card. Thanks for pointing this discrimination out. I will make noise.