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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:

*MOUSE PRINT:

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.

*MOUSE PRINT:

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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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.

*MOUSE PRINT:

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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Tech-Challenged Seniors Denied Digital Discounts by Grocers

Shrimp digital offerThey look like great bargains in the weekly supermarket flyer: chicken breasts $1.97 a pound and bags of large shrimp for $5.97.

But If you are a digitally-disconnected senior citizen, a lower income person, or someone of any age not technically savvy, you may pay more for grocery specials like these because supermarket chains across the country are increasingly making some of their better sale items “digital-only,” according to a review by Consumer World.

Historically, in order to take advantage of all the sale items featured in a chain’s weekly circular, all shoppers had to do at most was to show their loyalty card to the cashier. Now some prominent supermarket chains are adding an extra step that requires internet access. Shoppers who want to buy any item flagged as a digital deal must in advance preselect and load it into their online account on the store’s website or app in order to get the advertised sale price in the store.

This extra technical hurdle disproportionately hurts digitally-challenged seniors in the pocketbook because they are the least likely to have internet access or a smartphone. In fact, according to a 2021 study by the Pew Research Center, 39 percent of those 65 and over do not own a smartphone, and 25 percent don’t use the internet. Lower income people lack online access to a similar degree. This means that millions of seniors and others can’t take advantage of digital-only deals.

Compounding the problem, in the past year, some supermarkets are now extending digital-only deals beyond dry groceries to meat, fish, poultry and produce. These items often replace some conventional weekly specials and are given prominent placement in their advertising flyers.

Star Market ad composite

Among the 50+ supermarkets checked by Consumer World, two-thirds of them advertise some weekly digital-only deals, including at Albertsons, Acme, Baker’s, Dillons, Fred Meyer, Frys Food, Food Lion, Jewel Osco, Kroger, Pick ‘n Save, Ralphs, Randalls, Safeway, Shaw’s, ShopRite, Smart & Final, Smith’s, Star Market, Stop & Shop, and others.

“Digital discounts are no deal for many seniors. They are a clever ploy by big supermarket chains to get people into the store knowing full well that many of them will wind up paying more than the advertised price,” commented Edgar Dworsky, a consumer advocate and founder of Consumer World. “A substantial number of shoppers don’t have online access, don’t understand how to take advantage of digital offers, or won’t be able to follow the cumbersome online procedure no matter what their age is.”

This month, to find out about their policies and any alternative means of obtaining digital-only deals, Consumer World contacted a number of supermarket chains including Albertsons Companies and The Kroger Co. that combined own 5,000 stores operating under about 40 supermarket nameplates. They offer digital-only deals in at least some of their divisions. Neither Albertsons nor Kroger corporate responded. Stop & Shop (a unit of Ahold Delhaize) confirmed it “does not offer an alternative to digital coupons at this time,” but ignored the tougher questions.

Calls to the customer service departments of Albertsons Companies and The Kroger Co. provided the expected response, similar to instructions on their websites: You must load the digital offers onto your loyalty card account online to obtain the savings. Call center representatives at both companies said that there is no non-internet alternative currently available. One said, “We get calls every day” asking for an offline way to take advantage of weekly digital specials.

*MOUSE PRINT:

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.

Informal conversations with store employees provided more insight. One head cashier said she was sure many people don’t understand the advertised digital offers and mistakenly believe that just using the loyalty card would give them the sale price. She said her chain doesn’t allow cashiers to provide the digital discounts directly to customers.

There are some bright spots, however, in dealing with this digital dilemma. Not all chains have adopted digital-only deals and many are using them sparingly. A few chains such as Giant Food use “clip or click” coupons in their weekly ads that allow the customer to choose their preferred redemption method. Texas-based H-E-B provides physical coupons in-store for those who do not use the Internet. And store-level customer service employees at multiple chains said that its cashiers or help desk workers can provide the discounts if asked despite the official policy.

The use of digital-only offers appears to be accelerating. (These in-circular digital deals are separate from stores offering digital versions of manufacturers coupons on their website.) A closer look at 10 of the 50+ chains checked reveals that most doubled or tripled the number of digital-only deals offered in June 2022 compared to the same week last year. Some are even advertised in-store like the chicken above, or on the ice cream shelf tag below. Any shopper without a smartphone will pay much more because they have no way to load the offer onto their account.

sheft tag

“With inflation at a 40-year high, it’s time to stop discriminating against the digitally-disconnected, particularly seniors, and offer them the same discounts already enjoyed by tech-savvy shoppers,” urged Dworsky in a plea to supermarket executives. “Many, if not most seniors are on fixed incomes and need all the financial help they can get.”

What do you think? Should supermarkets make digital deals available to those without internet access? Please add your comments below.

Here are sample digital only deals from some leading supermarket chains:

Digital offers sampleClick graphic above TWICE to enlarge