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The Robocalls That Just Might Save Your Life

I’m no fan of telemarketing, but more stores are now contacting customers for a very good reason: product recalls

By Caroline Mayer

Faithful readers of my Next Avenue consumer blog know that I hate robocalls and have concerns about the ways stores collect data on our buying habits.

But I’m now here to applaud a select group of retailers using robocalls as a force for good. The stores are marrying computerized calls with their data mining to let consumers know when they may have purchased food or a product being recalled because of a potential safety hazard.

(MORE: Telemarketing Calls Like This One Are Cause for Alarm)

Calls That Can Be Lifesavers

Traditionally, when most stores learn that a product they sell has been recalled, they pull it off the shelves and post signs to alert customers. But some supermarkets and retailers are now also digging through their sales data, using loyalty card and membership information to pinpoint customers who may have purchased the recalled items. Then they robocall them with the appropriate alerts.

Such a positive use of what, until now, I had considered two modern-day evils — robocalls and data mining — has made me rethink my contempt. That’s because the stores are creating what pundits like to call a win-win situation: A win for consumers who may not know about the recall or think it doesn’t apply to them and a win for the stores, who increase their customers’ loyalty.

Glad to Get the Peanut Call

Consider this recent Facebook post from a friend of mine about a supermarket in Falls Church, Va.:

Appreciate the robocall we got from Harris Teeter, pointing out the ice cream we had purchased could be covered by the recent peanut butter recall. Glad those buyer databases can do more than generate coupons. Also glad the ice cream had not yet gotten passed on to those it was intended for!

When I subsequently asked my friend about the recalled ice cream, she said she’d heard about the salmonella infections linked to Sunland's peanuts and the peanut butter made with them. But, she said, “I didn’t think too much about it because it didn’t include the brand of peanut butter on my shelf.”

She added that it never occurred to her that the recall involved other peanut butter products, including the peanut butter cup ice cream her husband had purchased for a man in hospice care that he regularly visits. Fortunately, her husband forgot to bring the ice cream that day, so the Harris Teeter call helped spare the possibility of what could have been a devastating illness.

(MORE: Watch Out for Loopholes in the New Robocall Rules)

The store offered a refund, which my friend’s husband picked up the next time he shopped there. “I commend Harris Teeter for being a good corporate citizen,” my friend says. And you can bet she is now even more fond of Harris Teeter than before.

Class 1, 2 and 3 Recalls

Harris Teeter has used its loyalty card information to call customers about recalls with serious adverse health consequences (designated “Class 1” by the Food and Drug Administration) for at least four years. The store also hangs recall signs in its stores and posts information on its website.

“We realize all of our customers might not have plans to go the store or to visit our website on the day we receive the Class 1 recall notification,” said Catherine Reuhl, Harris Teeter communications manager. ‘We think it is important, therefore, that we reach out to them directly by way of the voice blast system.”

Wegmans, a regional, New York-based supermarket chain, has been making recall robocalls since 2007.

Initially, Wegmans called customers only on their landlines for a Class 1 recall for a national product or a store brand with a recall level of Class 1 or 2 (causing temporary illness). “We were worried that customers might be upset if we called their cell, since on some plans it could cost customers money,” Wegmans spokesperson Jeanne Colleluori said. But the program has been so popular that Wegmans now also makes robocalls to customers' cell phone numbers and advises shoppers about all recalled products it sells (even for Class 3 recalls, which are not likely to cause adverse health consequences).


One of Wegmans’ first alerts was to tell nearly 200,000 customers about a recall of ground beef linked to e coli. “What amazed us was the number of customers who called to ask more questions and to thank us, saying they had no idea about the recall,” Colleluori said. “We thought everybody knew, but they didn’t.”

She said customers were particularly grateful when products are recalled that may contain suspected allergens, like peanuts, not listed on the ingredient label.

The supermarket chain Ahold USA (which owns Stop & Shop and Giant Food) called approximately 300,000 customers last year to alert them about Class 1 recalls. “I remember receiving a note from a customer saying she would be a Giant shopper for the rest of her life because Giant took the time to protect her family’s health and safety,” said Tracy Pawelski, Ahold's vice president for external communications.

The Warehouse Club Pioneer

Costco, the warehouse club giant, was one of the earliest users of robocalls-for-good. It started contacting club members in 2006 after the popular Aqua Dots toy craft kit was recalled because its beads could turn toxic if swallowed. (New members supply their phone numbers when signing up to get their Costco cards).

“We got notified of the urgency of the recall and decided to use this new system I’d been messing with,” said Craig Wilson, Costco’s vice president of food safety, quality assurance and merchandise services. “We’ve used it ever since. We’ve never had one negative call — and we’ve called millions of people.”

How to Get the Helpful Calls

So while I’m still not a fan of robocalls or loyalty cards, generally speaking, I now view both in a much more positive light. I encourage you to do the same and, more important, to make sure stores are able to alert you if you purchase potentially problematic items. Here’s how:

  • Sign up for store loyalty cards at supermarkets and other retailers, if you haven’t already. Make sure you provide a telephone number where you can be reached. Some privacy-phobic consumers give stores phony numbers, but that can backfire if you need to know about a recall.
  • Keep your contact information up to date, informing stores whenever you change your number.
  • Don’t automatically dismiss any robocall you receive, as tempting as that may be. Instead, listen to the message to see if there’s a valid reason for the call.

In addition, sign up for email or text alerts from the U.S. government at These messages can be particularly valuable if you have life-threatening food allergies.

Sure, computerized calls, email and text blasts can be annoying and disruptive. But in the case of a recall, they might be more welcome than ever.

Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post, covering such issues as product safety, scams, and credit cards. Mayer has received several awards, including the Betty Furness Consumer Media Service Award. She has written for Consumer Reports, CBS MoneyWatch, Ladies Home Journal, Kaiser Health News and others. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer Read More
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