I urge you all to shop randomly

Can the day be far away when every supermarket has its own loyalty- card therapist?
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The Independent Culture
IN ONE of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads monologues, the narrator describes a counselling session in which one of the characters confesses to exposing himself in a Sainsbury's doorway. As the narrator's shocked mother remarks: "Tesco, you could understand."

Where we shop has always been a guide to which social class we inhabit. But now there is to be apotentially Orwellian refinement. Now the stores are to create their own internal class system, ranking shoppers according to how much they spend. This they can do thanks to those ubiquitous loyalty cards. There are now more than 40 million of these in circulation. They ostensibly give shoppers discounts for being frequent trolley-pushers, but have a more sinister purpose.

Tesco is reported to be looking at creating a three-tiered class system. The biggest rewards, which might include special deals on foreign holidays, would go to families that buy large amounts regularly, with lesser spenders getting proportionately smaller benefits.

Personally, I'd be lucky to get a candy-floss in Southend. I will have nothing to do with loyalty cards. This is not because I am capricious in my shopping habits, but because I am a democrat. Loyalty cards look like a good deal and certainly tell us a good deal about the philosophies of the supermarket chains. Tesco, for example, is an unsentimental, unreconstructed monetarist. The Tesco loyalist receives money-off vouchers. Safeway is the "new man" among supermarket giants: its benefits in kind include an annual creche pass. Sainsbury's Air Miles offer encourages you to go away and make babies, rather than put them in a creche.

At least that was a system free of political and psychological overtones. The new customer "class" system being considered by Tesco could end up with supermarkets resembling opera houses. There might be a plush checkout where the designer-label, high-spending shoppers could chat with their own kind, while the one-basket, basic-toiletries-and-marked-down-poultry baskets could enter and leave via a separate entrance.

The psychological implications are equally disturbing. Safeway is now testing palm-top computers designed to check the cardholder's shopping history before making "tailored" special offers available to the shopper.

Until this moment, I was not aware that I had a "shopping history". I thought I just bought things. But if you have a shopping history, the shopping analyst cannot be far behind. Can the day be far away when every supermarket has a loyalty-card therapist, and a special room behind the toiletries-and-household-cleaning aisle where your shopping history can be analysed?

"The switch you made last March from fresh to dried pasta: I can't help but notice it was around the time you changed from luxury soft toilet- rolls to our special-offer basic packs," the analyst will say.

"And the avocados disappeared altogether. Was it just a financial crisis, or was it a more profound loss of enthusiasm for the good things in life? I see the chocolate consumption has more than doubled. How have you and your partner been getting on recently?"

It may or may not be that we are what we eat. But for sure we are what we shop. Every aisle tells a story, every trolley contains a human struggle. Months of eschewing French apples, followed by a splurge on special- offer Golden Delicious, is but the outer symbol of the defeat of an environmental campaigner. Safeway's palm-top computer will surely bleep when it notices a shopper who is losing their political consciousness.

And Big Brother in the storeroom will programme the poor lost soul's name into a database to send to dubious political and commercial organisations. The new, computerised, class-graded loyalty cards are a subtle totalitarian tool. But there is one way to defeat them.

Shop with no consistency, no game plan, no consumerist ideology. Flit from supermarket to supermarket. One week, put as many E-numbers into your trolley as it can hold. Then the next week, only go to the organic shelves. Never spend the same amount two weeks running. Intersperse strict vegetarianism with carnivorous blow-outs and the Chablis with the Liebfraumilch.

Then watch the steam come out of the palm-top computer and see the store manager - in the manner of a failed Ian Fleming Smersh operative - click his heels and bury his head in the frozen turkeys.