John Kelly's Washington

E-ZPass in the grocery lane?

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By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; 12:46 PM

First there were Giant and Safeway. Then there was CVS. "Then Rite-Aid started theirs," Eileen Williams says.

She's talking about loyalty cards, those little bits of plastic that retailers send us with the promise of discounts and rebates and free puppies. (I'm joking about the free puppies.)

So many stores have these cards now that if you're like Eileen, of Falls Church, your wallet is about four inches high.

"Panera now has cards," she moaned. "And Barnes and Noble. And they not only give you the big card you're supposed to keep in your wallet or purse, they have the small ones to put on your keychains. You can have 10 little cards hanging on your keychain."

In other words, Eileen says, things have gotten out of hand. Your wallet gives you a hernia and your keychain looks like a medieval mace. And god forbid you're without your card when you get to the checkout. You won't get the discount.

But Eileen has an idea: a single card that stores your data and is recognized by all the merchants you do business with. One card to rule them all!

"Why can't they just go to a system like E-ZPass?" Eileen said. "We don't have an E-ZPass for every state. You can go from Florida up to Maine on 95 or the New Jersey Turnpike and the E-ZPass system works. It would be nice if we could have a universal card for all the different stores."

Now some people may say, wait a minute, you don't have to carry the card. You can punch in your telephone number. I've found that doesn't work everywhere. The grocery stores are good at it but not necessarily the sandwich shops.

The main problem I see with Eileen's idea is that the retailers themselves wouldn't go for it. They may pitch the cards as a benefit to the consumer but they're just as valuable to the merchant, who can track your spending habits and figure out different ways to winkle money from your purse. I don't think rival stores would be comfortable knowing such data was sitting together in one place. Would Macy's tell Gimbel's? (Don't know what that means? Google it.)

Fie on FiOS

Apparently there is FiOS in my neighborhood. How else to explain the calls I receive every three or four days from a phone company informing me of this fact and seeking my business. Each time I say the same thing before hanging up: "Thanks but I'm not interested."

Three or four days later they call again. They must think I'm like that guy in "Memento," incapable of remembering anything for longer than 24 hours. I contemplated tattooing "You don't want FiOS" on my abdomen but chose instead to tell the last person who called to please take me off their list.

She said it could take up to 30 days for the calls to stop.

The mysterious stranger

Martin and Alice Thomas of McLean were celebrating their 60th anniversary at the 2941 Restaurant in Falls Church one evening recently when a young man from another table came up and asked what the occasion was. When Martin told him, the man asked if he would come over and meet his wife and the couple they were dining with.

"He had a lovely wife," said Martin, a retired radiologist. "Quite pregnant with their fourth child."

The Thomases returned to their table and finished dinner. When they asked the waiter for the check, he said, "It's been taken care of." Gratuity too? "Oh yes, very nicely."

The benefactor? The man at the other table. Said Martin: "I walked over and I said, 'This is a very surprising thing. What's your name?' He didn't want to tell me. I said, 'Well okay, thank you very much, I greatly appreciate it.' " The only rationale the man gave was that Martin and Alice reminded him of his grandparents.

"I got to thinking about it later and talking to my kids," Martin said. "They say there are some people around Washington who like to be mysterious benefactors, like to do that sort of thing."

I think the man just looked at the Thomases and thought: I hope someday I can do what they're doing tonight.

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