Strip Search

Big Brother is watching: Can he tell whether you prefer good gin or cheap beer?

From the moment patrons walk into one of Richfield's four municipally owned liquor stores, bright orange signs make it clear what will happen when they get to the counter to pay. Regardless of whether they look to be under 21 or well over 70, customers who want to buy alcohol or tobacco must turn over their driver's license or state ID card to a clerk, who slides it through a scanner that reads the magnetic strip on the back. The signage offers an apology in advance for any inconvenience the two-month-old policy may cause. But it doesn't state what customers most often want to know: What's on that strip, anyway? And what's the liquor store going to do with the information?

Clerks try their best to explain. The scanner is not reading all the information contained in the strip, they say. It's only verifying the cardholder's age, to guard against fake IDs. Skeptics are permitted to observe the entire process: An ID is swiped through a slot in the computerized cash register. If a person has altered his birth date on the front of the card, the magnetic strip will reveal the truth--in the form of the word "underage," which appears on the register's small screen--whereupon the purchase is immediately voided. Otherwise, if the would-be buyer is of age, the screen remains blank and the purchase proceeds.

"It's the same kind of thing that stores do with customers' credit cards every day," says Bill Fillmore, who made the decision to add the new scanning software to the city's liquor-store registers back in June. In his 20-year tenure as director of Richfield's liquor operations, he has seen the penalties for selling alcohol to minors increase dramatically. To him, the ability to scan licenses represents both a way to keep alcohol out of the hands of underage drinkers and insurance that the city and its employees don't wind up in trouble.

The scanner does have its limitations. Many out-of-state licenses, for instance, don't feature a magnetic strip. And the strip, first placed on the back of Minnesota licenses and IDs in 1998, can be tampered with or erased. (According to Fillmore, if the scanner can't read a card, it's eyeballed closely by a clerk.)

The policy has not gone over well with some patrons, who see the scanning of their licenses as an invasion of privacy. "Some people think we're getting [additional] information on them," Fillmore says. "I assure them that we're not. Some believe you and some don't. I swear on a stack of Bibles that I'm not getting any more information than their age. I get on my knees and apologize to people on the phone all the time. I tell them if there was another way to do this, we would. But there's not, and we have lost some customers over it."

Folks at the MGM Liquor Warehouse in Crystal know a thing or two about license-scanning and customer backlash. According to Paul Setter, director of advertising and marketing for the St. Paul-based liquor chain, the company decided to install scanning software on the Crystal store's cash registers after the outlet was cited for selling alcohol to a minor during a routine compliance check by Crystal licensing officials this past December. (After months of legal wrangling, the location was shut down for ten days on August 18 as a result of the bust.)

Setter says the company ordered software that would provide age verification and nothing else. But early this summer the California firm that supplies MGM's cash registers delivered more than the liquor retailer had asked for. The new software revealed all of the information contained on the magnetic strip: the customer's name, license (or ID) number, address, and date of birth. Additionally, the program stored the information on a database--along with a record of what each customer had purchased.

It didn't take long for irate customers to complain to corporate headquarters. One angry patron, who had seen his personal information pop up on the store's cash-register screen, went so far as to write a letter to the Star Tribune, which was published in the August 9 edition. By then, according to Setter, MGM had called California and asked that the system be changed. "We only had it running for about a month before we realized what it was doing, and we decided to stop it," he says.

"We've deleted everything that was in the database," adds Setter, who says the information was never used in any way. "All we're doing now is verifying age. We don't even keep that information. If people want to be on our mailing list, they can ask us and we'll add them but we aren't going to just make up a database without their permission. We don't want to mail things out to people who don't want them."

Setter reports that the modified software has been installed in a few additional MGM locations and will eventually be deployed at all of the liquor retailer's 18 metro-area stores.

Bill Fillmore, too, is pleased with his setup, which was implemented with the full support of the Richfield City Council. Liquor sales are a substantial source of revenue for the City of Richfield, which owns and operates its own liquor stores under a state law that gives that right to cities with populations under 10,000. Fillmore says Richfield's four liquor stores gross more than $9 million a year--about $700,000 of which is profit that goes toward the maintenance of city parks. The $1,500 the city spent to purchase the scanning software was a comparatively small investment, Fillmore says, to insure against hefty fines or lost revenue if a store's license was suspended for selling to a minor.

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