The United States of Plastic
I recently went looking through my “back pocket” wallet in search of a long-lost gift card. This is the name I’ve given to the tri-fold that holds all of the cards and memorabilia I don’t need to carry on my person at all times, but that still serve some purpose. When this task proved unfruitful, I had to dig through a leather-bound business card keeper that also houses my checkbook. When I didn’t find what I needed there, I moved on to a smaller business card holding bi-fold that contains my own TCD business cards.
On the table before me, I had over 36 plastic membership/discount cards and hundreds of punch cards, business cards and even an old raincheck pass from the now-defunct 41 Twin Outdoor. And I never found the gift card I was looking for.
Like George Constanza’s wallet, my back pocket wallet was exploding a few years ago before I decided to pare it down into three wallets and get rid of certain scraps. Now, that particular wallet remains in my carryall just in case I’m shopping at a Petco or Barnes and Noble. The front pocket wallet (with it’s handy I.D. window and useless money clip attachment) has just the essential daily needs cards: two insurance, three credit, library, video, debit, Entertainment and Pick ‘n Save. Oh yes, and my driver’s license.
Remember the old days of imagining the future, when we were convinced that a chip or UPC barcode would be installed on the wrist, thus taking care of any identifying or purchasing needs?
As Orwellian as it seems, I would almost be relieved at the simplicity and convenience.
For many of us, it started with a credit card. Later on, big merchandise outlets and little video stores gave out laminated cards to their membership. Then someone discovered that consumers would feel like they were getting a better deal by swiping a membership discount card on marked items. This practice spread to hardware and pet stores, casinos and fitness centers, hair salons and hot dog vendors, and everything in between.
You won’t find membership or discount cards too far outside of chains nowadays. Your Speedway has a Rewards Card and Mobil has a Speedpass to pay for gas, but the station managers from the one-horse town providers do not. There is no discount card at high-end Trader Joe’s, Sendik’s or Whole Food markets, but you can get a gift card at each location. There is only a sandwich punch-card at Koppa’s.
There are cards for movie theaters that you can load up with money and then get a discount on the overall ticket price per visit. The problem with most cards — gift or credit — is that real value pales compared to a cash transaction. You swipe a card and that’s all there is to it. Conversely, you hand over a $20 bill and get $4 singles back. In the latter situation, there is a visual representation of the transaction before you. You have to look at the worth as either being an experience without thought to cost, or a physical bartering of one item for another.
One of the side benefits merchants get from having consumers sign up for membership discount is that they can track you down and pepper your email with spam or mailbox with flyers. This is a boon to the printing industry, but perhaps another reason publications have trouble finding blind advertising. If a business knows what draws in the customer, why would they have to sell it to you in a newspaper as well?
Personally, I’d like to disappear completely. But then again, how would I keep track of my Best Buy Rewards points?