Store loyalty cards poised to replace the census, claims business lawyer


Duncan Vaughan, associate, corporate & commercial, at business law firm DWF, claims retail store cards could provide a more accurate snapshot of the population than the Office for National Statistics’ 10-yearly census

Vaughan: loyalty cards could replace the census

Vaughan: loyalty cards could replace the census

After the Office for National Statistics recently admitted the census has become slow, inaccurate and expensive, there has been speculation it could be scrapped in favour of data collected from store loyalty cards. This might sound a little far-fetched, but as the cost of producing the census increases, the use of information collected from each of us by private companies seems to provide a more economical and reliable option.

The world of store cards is not a closeted one, with almost every adult in the country owning a loyalty card for at least one store. Two of the largest loyalty schemes in the UK, Sainsbury’s Nectar card and Tesco’s Clubcard, boast over 34m members between them. Each card collects information covering everything from the card holder’s name and address to their bakery preferences, from their level of disposable income to the age and sex of their children. 

Loyalty cards can provide a detailed snapshot of the holder’s life; providing up-to-date information by gathering new data each time the card is swiped and keeping records on each customer. This level of information means changes in purchasing behaviour can be easily identified and analysed. Loyalty card data can therefore offer far more accurate and up-to-date information than the Office for National Statistics (ONS) could ever hope to gather through the 10-yearly census.

It would be easy to assume the biggest stumbling block in the use of loyalty card data would be the issue of data protection. However, the Data Protection Act 1998 only comes into play where the data to be collected is attributable to a specific individual. If the ONS required attributable, ‘personal’ data, this would necessitate gaining the consent of every individual about whom the data was collected. However, data which has been anonymised, and is therefore no longer considered ‘personal data’ under the Act, does not require consent, and would be sufficient to provide the key geographical and historical trends currently found in the census. 

So, could store cards really replace the census? The simple answer is yes. Anonymised data from private companies’ loyalty card schemes could provide a much cheaper and more reliable source of information to the ONS, and give the Government a 21st century snapshot of life in the UK today.