Your Take: Providing ZIP Codes at Stores

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The Supreme Court of California recently ruled that retailers do not have the right to ask for a customer’s ZIP code because a 1971 state law prohibits a business from asking credit cardholders for personal identifying information.

I’ve personally never minded when the cashier asks me for a ZIP code but I know a few people who don’t like it. They are concerned that it invades their privacy and they don’t see the purpose of providing it, I agree with them on both counts. That said, if push ever came to shove and I didn’t want to give my real ZIP code, I’d just make one up. I doubt my credit card would be declined though I’ve never put it to the test.

Is this something that concerns you or do you think the privacy issues are overblown?

{ 78 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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78 Responses to “Your Take: Providing ZIP Codes at Stores”

  1. Andy says:

    I was at a store waiting to check out when the cashier asked the man in front of me for is zip code. He refused to give it saying he didn’t want any more mail sent to his house because he gets enough already. I’m not sure how he thought he would get more mail solely based off his zip code but whatever. The cashier said it was for marketing and to see where their customers were coming from. Another store of their’s opened up a few towns over and people from that town were still driving all the way to this store, so they wanted to see if and let people know about their new store, if they didn’t know already.

    My question is, if you pay with a credit card, doesn’t the store have even more information available to them now, zip code included?

    • Jim says:

      I’ve often wondered if the store can get your credit card information from the transaction itself. I don’t think they can. What they do have is your name and it’s probably not difficult to look up your address through public records, if they were that ambitious. That said, having the ZIP code definitely makes it a lot easier (and cheaper) to look up your information.

    • billsnider says:

      Stores do this to try to understand their custyomers. Not only do they get to understand where their customers are coming from, but they can look up the corresponding demoand psycho graphics.

      Given that, they can then target certain newspapers, select certain ValPack or Carol wright zips, target radio shows and a whole lot ore.

      They can also identify who they are not reaching. They can then target these people to expand their business.

      It does not lead to more mail directly. It does indirectly through inserts in Penny Saver, etc.

      If you want to get less direct mail, write to the Direct marketing association. They are in NY City. Look them up in Google.

      Also understand that marketers know a lot about you. You tell them about you when you buy a magazine subscription, send in a warranty card (notice that the return address is always Colorado), get a grocery store shoper card, and other such ways.

      Bill Snider

  2. I’ve never had a problem with it… I mean really, how much can you really know from just a zip code? I don’t see much danger in giving that out.

    • billsnider says:

      It is not dangerous. The store is not going to screw you by knowing it.

      The flip side is true. They want to improve the store by trying to understand how better to sell you.

      Bill Snider

    • MikeZ says:

      I don’t think there is any danger either and fully believe they want the data for marketing information. However I never give them a real zip code. It’s not my job to make their marketing easier if they were to offer me a 1% discount on my purchase I’d gladly give them my zip code but until then they get bogus data.

      • Strebkr says:

        That is an interesting take on it. You make a very good point.

      • billsnider says:

        False thinking. It will actually raise your cost.

        They will advertise to the wrong area. This in turn will waste advertising dollars and raise prices to cover watse.

        Bill Snider

        • MikeZ says:

          I don’t disagree that it may raise costs, although I think that is debatable*. For me its the principal they would like something from me in addition to the money I’m using to purchase an item, I don’t give that away for free. I’d say that value of the wasted advertising dollars would have the same value as the the sale of that zip code information. So its a net wash for me personally. Now if you gave your zip code to the merchant you lost out because you paid the increased markup AND then paid again in information.

          * I have a Tivo so I don’t watch ANY television advertisements, I throw away all junk mail without reading it, I don’t subscribe to a newspaper. I have a 6 mile morning commute on backroads (so no billboards). So they shouldn’t be making any decision on where to advertise based on me it will be wasted either way.

  3. damich says:

    I generally agree, how much harm could providing your zip code do. But a single piece of information can be used to validate other info, or slowly help build a profile (a single piece of info here, another there, etc.). This is also why I use an obviously fake email address for posting comments to any site 🙂

  4. jsh says:

    I’ve always assumed that retailers use zip code information (especially online) to identify new markets for expansion.

  5. Emily says:

    I never had a problem with it. I often hope that my zip code will encourage a store I like to open a new location closer to me, especially since I live in an area with a lot of new development.

    • Shirley says:

      The store really doesn’t care about your full address; they use the zipcode for advertising purposes. If a new zipcode pops up several times, they might put a coupon in that newspaper to attract more customers from there. Coupons are nice! 🙂

  6. cubiclegeoff says:

    I don’t like to give out info, although I could see that it doesn’t have much harm. I much prefer to give a random zip code or one from an old address (like from across the country).

  7. Strebkr says:

    Its always weird when they ask, but in the end I just don’t care enough to say “I’m not giving it to you” I would prefer if they don’t ask, but until then…

  8. Phil says:

    I don’t have a real problem giving up my zip code. I’ve noticed that some places where you scan your card yourself sometimes request you to key in your zip code. My experience is that I’m asked to enter this information most often when I’m traveling well outside of my home zip code. I’m assuming that this is to prevent credit theft. I have no problem with that.

  9. Grace L. says:

    When in college, I would give the zipcode for the college instead of where my card was based out of and it never rejected me.

    I always heard that the zipcodes help them in determining where to put future locations. I can understand that with certain stores, but not others.

  10. TomM says:

    I’ve had to enter my zip code when purchasing gas at the pump here in PA and other states….as well as in Canada. I figured this was some sort of security check to make sure I was the real card owner?

    • Demi says:

      That is exactly what it is for in PA, Tom. I entered the incorrect zip code once and the sale as rejected…the pump informed me to go inside and see the cashier. I just reran the card and put in the correct zip code and the same was then approved to proceed. So…it has its advantages. One recommended procedure is to hit the clear button after your transaction is completed, though. This is suppose to clear out the cache memory of the last sale so some enterprising hack can’t try and continue a gas sale…on your card…which has happened in the past. And boy is that a hard one to fix.

    • billsnider says:


      If someone buys your credit card number, they can’t use it without also knowing your billing zip code.

      Bill Snider

  11. Norman says:

    I don’t mind giving my zip code when they ask because I know its for marketing, but lately I’ve been asked to give my phone number which I have refused when it was a cash transaction. One clerk didn’t know what to do when she asked for my phone number and I refused to provide it, so I told her to input zeros. Their system took the zeros, so we were both happy.

    • billsnider says:

      This is very differant from a zip code. This is used to cover them legally for telemarketing.

      If you are a customer, they can legally call you for something like 18 months from the prior transaction. Not sure if current law is still 18 months. But you get the idea.

      Bill Snider

      • ian says:

        When you give your phone number at the register, it’s not because the company wants to call you and has nothing to do with telemarketing. It has everything to do with understanding who their customer is and rewarding that customer with coupons and incentives for continued shopping. (I work is Customer Marketing)

  12. indio says:

    Gas stations around here are now asking for a zip code to be put in when you use a credit card at the pump. I’m not as generous as everyone else is with helping companies do marketing, so I input my preferred fake zip code of 90210. The pump wouldn’t accept the transaction because it claimed it was a security question and was validating the data with the cc company.

    • cubiclegeoff says:

      Many gas stations have done this for years for credit card authorization. There is no way to get around this.

  13. Suz says:

    Zip code matching is becoming more and more common as a security question when a live person isn’t there to check your identity visually – like asking to see your drivers licence or checking the signature on the back of the credit card with the signature on the credit card slip.

  14. Suz says:

    (Had to post this in two sections – it kicked me out as spam otherwise…)

    Credit cards transactions at an unmanned gas pump with a zip code entered that doesn’t match your billing statement address will be refused. It’s a security question to make sure that your credit card isn’t stolen. That’s assuming that your address wasn’t stolen along with the credit card, though.

  15. MrObtuse says:

    I work for a retail chain and we request zip codes at the register. It has nothing to do with the credit card purchase (in fact, the cashiers should be asking this on each transaction). We use the info to determine which markets to target our advertising (ie. where to spend our ad dollars) – tracking dollars spent with the zip code. Stores are graded on compliance. I know some cashiers use 99999 or 00000 if a person refuses to offer their zip code.

  16. Frugal says:

    I really don’t mind giving my zipcode as I do not believe it can do any harm. I am not very much concerned abiut marketing. Also, my address is in yellow pages.

    As Jim said above, if someone really wanted to know, it is in the public records.

  17. freeby50 says:

    I see no harm in giving a ZIP at all.
    It may be slightly annoying for them to ask for a ZIP, but thats about it.

    Frankly I think people who are worried about it as a privacy invasion are mostly irrationally paranoid. Theres almost 40,000 people in my ZIP code. What could a store possibly do with that ZIP??

    Would the same people balking at giving a ZIP code ever write a check at a store?

  18. Will says:

    Follow a simple rule to protect your personal identity:

    Never give ANY personal information out to anyone that cannot justify TO YOU (not to themselves) why they need it.

    It does not take much information from you to steal your identity or to harass you with unwanted marketing.

    Make it a habit. Simply refuse. And you will find in time that it just comes nature. “What’s your zip code” I dont give that out. “What’s your phone number.” I dont give that out. “What’s your social security number” I dont give that out.

    Most of the time, the clerk will just enter “11111” and move on. It’s not a big deal. If it is a big deal… heh, that’s a big red flag that you were right not to give it in the first place.

    If you make it a habit, it’s easy, and you wont get accidently caught off guard. You will also be impressed by the decrease in marketing your receive.

  19. skylog says:

    interesting. i usually do not mind, but anywhere i can not give out information is a good thing i suppose.

  20. Steve says:

    Hey guys, when you post your reply can you please leave your zip code as well? I’m doing a study on web site visitors. Thanks!


    I think it’s relatively harmless either way. I’m glad the customer has the right to refuse, but I have always given my zip anyway because it’s a very vague piece of identification.

    • Strebkr says:

      Steve – Mine is 90210. Good luck on your study 🙂 ha.

      That zip has to be one of the more famous ones that most anyone could rattle off the top of their head.

  21. daenyll says:

    I see no problem with a zip code for indirect marketing, I do refuse phone or email when asked

  22. Erin says:

    I’ve worked in retail, and I had to ask for ZIP codes. It was for marketing purposes. Who knows, if enough people from your ZIP visit a store, one just might show up in your town!

    While customers do have a right to refuse, and I would just put in the store’s ZIP code when they did, I think it’s kind of a jackass move.

    Cashiers are people, too. Just rattle off five numbers and be done with it.

    • zapeta says:

      I agree with you completely! There is always (at least) one customer who will make a production about not giving you a zip code. Its not information that the store can use to identify you given the geographic size and number of people in a zip codes.

  23. Being a marketer and knowing how knowing the zip code of a purchaser helps in marketing reach and demographics, I don’t mind providing my zip code.

    I am very big on privacy and do not offer things like my address or phone number. If they ask, I refuse.

  24. Ryan says:

    Some people above mentioned the correct answer, gas stations among other stores use AVS address verification that requires the correct zip code corresponding to the credit card or the transaction could be declined. Redbox is infamous for this! Also, retailers use this information to see target segmentation among other marketing information.

    • paul says:

      where can I confirm this information and verify?

      • billsnider says:

        Write to the Direct Marketing Association in NY City. Also pick up any good marekting text book.

        There are also seminars given about this at the Direct marketing Association annual conferences.

        Bill Snider

  25. Alex says:

    The purpose of asking for your ZIP code is to determine the geographic footprint of that store location. It can influence direct mail campaigns and possibly the location of a new store. It also benchmarks the store against a competitor who may be closer to your zip code area. Do you drive 4 miles to go to a Target when Walmart is less than a mile away? Marketing wants to know stuff like that.

    If you pay with a credit card, cash or a check, you’re asked for your zip code. It has nothing to do with payment method.

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