Why Do Stores Need Your Zip Code?


In one high-profile case, the home furnishings and cookware chain Williams-Sonoma matched names from its credit card sales and ZIP codes with a database to obtain addresses and other information for future marketing. One woman sued, saying she provided her ZIP code thinking it was necessary to complete the credit card transaction. In the resulting case the Direct Marketing Association and privacy groups showed sharply different outlooks on the practice. The case eventually made its way up to the California Supreme Court, which ruled in 2011 that stores cannot require patrons to furnish their ZIP code. California later confirmed the ruling in a law that bars firms from collecting personally identifying information during credit card transaction. Courts in other states such as Massachusetts earlier this year have reviewed the issue.

Have you ever wondered why stores ask for your zip code when you’re checking out at the register? I always figured they just wanted to know which areas shoppers came from so they could figure out where to open more stores and didn’t think about it too much. There’s much more to it, of course. Forbes gives a rundown on why we should probably never give stores our zip code.

Photo: Allie Caulfield

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11 Comments / Post A Comment

aeroaeroaero (#1,422)

I always tell them 90210.

readyornot (#816)

I wonder if I stopped giving my zip code whether my requests to be unsubscribed from catalog delivery would go better.

what about gas stations? i don’t think you can complete a credit card transaction without giving the zip code.

@readyornot Since I’ve never been marketed to directly by a gas station, I would guess it’s more of a first-line identity-theft prevention thing? Because if you’re paying at the pump, they can’t check your ID or your signature, so maybe they’re thinking that if someone is using a stolen card, there’s a possibility they won’t know the billing zip code.

readyornot (#816)

@SarcasticFringehead I mean, that’s what I thought it was, though that’s also why I thought they asked for zip code at a credit card terminal inside a store, even though you are also signing a receipt. But even if gas stations aren’t doing direct marketing, they could be selling your information to, like, auto insurance companies or something.

missvancity (#146)

@readyornot The gas station thing drives me crazy. I live in Canada, and I don’t have a ZIP code! Please let me buy your cheap, cheap gas anyways!

@missvancity Yeah, that was a point I forgot to mention – I get plenty of direct mail from Geico/State Farm/etc., so just because I’m not getting anything from Shell or Conoco doesn’t mean they’re not still selling it to somebody. I guess it’s another point in favor of being organized enough to go all-cash.

Or like last time I went to Nordstrom Rack, and they asked for my email “to send me the receipt” (which I know is a real thing sometimes, but not this time) and then proceeded to give me a paper receipt and spam me with email offers. And I knew as I was saying it that I shouldn’t give it to them, but I was kind of on autopilot and I just wanted to get my discount nail polish and go home.

joyballz (#2,000)

I’ve been asked for phone numbers before and never thought about it too much since I give my parents’ land line that they disconnected ages ago.

mishaps (#65)

When stores ask me for my ZIP code, I usually say, “No, thank you,” which disconcerts them, but they move on.

shannowhamo (#845)

@mishaps With zip codes I’ve never gotten any push back but the last time I bought something at Old Navy you would have thought I refused to pay the way the cashier responded to me not wanting to give my email address. I’ve taken myself off of their mailing list many times and I just didn’t want to hold up the line and have to unsubscribe later but she’s like “well, I’m really not supposed to leave this blank.” Obviously, it’s not the 17 year old working the register’s problem, it’s a company that gets on to them if they can’t charm an email address out of someone. Next time I’ll jut give them this address: tatertotfreak@hotmail.com

keaton (#2,721)

I’m not from the US and had no idea that this was a thing. I would be really weirded out if someone asked me for my postcode in a shop! Not in a bad way … it would just seem so odd. I wouldn’t particularly care about giving it out though, since I don’t have a credit card they could map it to.

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