Consumer advocates were celebrating, and retailers were shocked Thursday, when the California Supreme Court declared that state law bars a merchant from asking for a customer's ZIP code and recording it as part of a credit card purchase.
As part of an address, a ZIP code qualifies as personal identification information, so when a merchant asks a customer for it and records it as part of a transaction, that violates California's Credit Card Act, the high court ruled.
The unanimous 17-page opinion outlaws the widespread practice and strikes down an appellate court's 2009 decision.
The defendant, high-end household goods giant Williams-Sonoma Stores Inc., offers no reason that would justify departing from the "statute's plain language, protective purpose and legislative history," the court concluded.
Through both its attorney and its marketing vice president, San Francisco-based Williams-Sonoma declined to comment.
Richard Holober, executive director of the Consumer Federation of California, hailed the ruling as "a great victory for consumer protection and common sense. It's nonsensical that a retailer can collect bits and pieces, turn them over to a data aggregation service and have a field day selling the information and otherwise using it for business purposes."
On the other hand, Bill Dombrowski, president of the California Retailers Association, called it "a terrible decision."
"It's just a very broad interpretation of the word 'address,' with which we strongly disagree," he said. "There's not much more I can say.
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