Mrs. Hilderbrand taught me well. Actually, I think I have always detected a kindred spirit in her when it came to the “smart aleck” department that dates back to the years she was my English Lit, Composition, Journalism and Yearbook teacher. Her article in this week’s local newspaper just proved that we are much more alike than I probably would have admitted back in the days when I was her oftentimes unwilling student and she was my underappreciated instructor. It seems we both get frustrated with those who earn their living calling people on the phone to try to sell them on a new package with the cable company (I have a satellite dish), entice them to subscribe to a particular magazine or to tell me that I am a grand prize winner in the latest publishers clearinghouse sweepstakes. If Ed McMahon shows up at my door, I’ll definitely listen to the spiel, especially since I think he is dead and such a visit would call for my undivided attention I believe.
This morning, my son and I went up the road to visit a few stores and pick up some things I needed. He is out for the summer and I decided to take a vacation day from work and spend it with him. We had lunch at a sports bar so we could watch the US Open, then we both got haircuts and picked up a new tennis racket for him (I ended up getting one too so we could practice together). Our last stop was to pick up some soap which we were running low on at home. Everything was fine until I went to pay for my purchase and it went downhill from there.
“Can I have your phone number?” said the clerk.
“Why do you need my phone number? I asked. “I can’t imagine why you would need to call me”.
“It’s our policy” she answered.
I made up a phone number and gave it to her. I don’t remember what it was but it had the prefix “555” in it, which I have alway been told doesn’t actually exist and is the reason why they always use numbers like that in movies and on television. She didn’t bat an eye and entered it as I gave it to her, which is a good thing because I was afraid she might ask me to repeat it and I would not remember the same number twice. A little voice in my head reminded me that this is why you should never tell a lie, because in addition to it not being the right thing to do, most people never can remember the lie they have told and this usually leads to more lies to cover up for it. I decided I should be truthful from that point on.
“Can I have your email address?” she asked next. This really irked me and I’m sure it showed.
“Why do you need my email address?” I shot back.
“So we can send you coupons” she answered.
“What if I don’t want coupons?”
“You can always opt out of the marketing emails”
“Why should I have to give you my email address so I can opt out of something I don’t want in the first place?”
“We have really good sales and you can save a good bit of money with the coupons”
“Does your company sell contact lists to third-party vendors?” I asked next.
“I don’t think we do” she answered, now looking a bit unsure of herself. I decided to press on a bit further.
“Are you willing to put that in writing?”
“Uh, I can’t really do that” she said, looking around I am sure for the manager of the store to come and rescue her.
“Miss Tara said you shouldn’t give out personal information to people you don’t know Daddy” my son interjected.
“Miss Tara is right” I answered, thankful for wise teachers.
“Why do they want all this stuff?” he asked, obviously ready to go.
“So they can send us spam” I answered, enjoying my wife’s absence and the lack of restraint I could now employ because of that.
“We can get that at the grocery store” he answered wisely. Meanwhile, the clerk stuffed some coupons in the bag and told us to have a nice day.
I really miss the good old days when you went to the counter, paid for your purchase and the clerk thanked you and handed you a receipt. Now, when you shop at many retail outlets, they make you think that if you don’t give them all your personal information, they won’t give you what you paid for and they might not even let you out of the store. A clothing shop I go to sometimes always asks me for my zip code, even when I pay for my purchase with cash. I gave up arguing with them and started giving them the zip code the store was in. Once they asked me whether I lived around here and I said “no, I don’t live in this county”.
“But you gave me the local zip code” he said.
“You asked me ‘what’s the zip code” so I told you what the zip code is. Why did you ask me what the zip code was if you already knew it?” I asked.
The conversation went nowhere fast from there. It seems today that everyone wants to know everything about you, from your shopping habits to your spending patterns. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t have a CVS card or an Ingles Advantage card, even though they ask me every time I purchase something there. They try to get me to sign up for one each time this happens too. “No thank you” I always say. Sure, you can probably save a few cents on a box of Hamburger Helper or get a coupon after so many prescriptions but is it really worth it to know that your every shopping move is being tracked by some system that is trying its best to analyze how you shop, how much you spend, what you spend it on and whether you are an impulse buyer, just so they can market directly to you? Or worse, so they can call you at home while you are sitting at the dinner table trying to enjoy a meal?
Mrs. Hildebrand mentioned some of the ways she deals with those who like to call her at home with their scripted marketing schemes. Here are a few of mine:
“Hello, can I speak to James?” (This is the first clue that this someone I don’t want to talk to. Anyone that calls me by my first name is someone who works for somebody that bought my name from a marketing list). “This is Peggy from Unlimited Magazines and we wanted to offer you a special deal on a year’s subscription to Car and Driver for only $19.95 a year”.
“I am Amish. We don’t drive cars. Do you have a special on “Mule and Wagon”?
“Uh, no sir, I don’t think we do”.
“Well if you get one, call me back and I’ll be glad to talk to you about it”.
I’ve also asked whether the magazine they are selling is available in Braille, which usually brings the call to a quick conclusion. Or this one:
“Hi, this is [Cable Service] calling with a great special on our All Sports Package which we are offering free to you for three months if you sign up with us for cable TV service!”
“Do you have cow tipping?”
“No sir, but we have all the major league baseball teams, college football and championship golf!”
“How about polo?”
“Uh, no polo sir. There are a lot other choices though!”
“You know, it’s illegal to advertise ‘All Sports” when you don’t in fact carry ‘All Sports’. If I were to accept your package and couldn’t find ‘All Sports’ offered, I would have grounds to sue [cable company] for falsely advertising a product that does not live up to what it promises. In fact, if I accepted this on face value, we have then entered into a contract and if you don’t live up to your end of the contract, you are in breach of said contract and could be found liable for damages”.
“Oh. Are you a lawyer sir?”
“No, but I get “The Legal Channel” on my [satellite provider] so I’ve picked a few things up over the years”.
Unlike Mrs. Hilderbrand, I’ve never run across a relative on one of these marketing calls. Most of the callers I get are of dubious national origin and if it turned out we were related, I would need to have a serious talk with my parents. Maybe I’m just overprotective of personal information in an age where everything is out there all over the place. I miss being able to buy something and no one cared whether you were deviating from the computer-modeled spending pattern that you normally exhibit. I miss ordering at a fast food restaurant and not having to give them your name to call out when the order is ready. The Dairy Queen in Monticello still calls out order numbers and that works just fine-why complicate things by going to names, especially if your name is one of the most common and might bring three people to the counter at the same time? There are times when just being a number is a blessing and one can just bask in the anonymity that goes along with it. I always feel for the person whose name is difficult or pronounced differently and I see their discomfort when the clerk mangles the pronunciation badly.
I guess this is the age we live in now and all your information is free for the picking so I’ll just go on and save everyone the trouble. If you need to call me, you can reach me at 555-1212 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Knock yourself out.