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BY CHARLES BATTERSBY | I strut through Union Square in my $750 cocktail dress, and take a sip from my $10 coffee, careful not to smudge my professionally applied lipstick. A gentleman hands me a free cupcake as I walk by. Other people give me food, cosmetics, and beverages because… I’m special!
Am I a movie star? A princess? A social media influencer with a million followers? No, I’m special because I’m The Birthday Girl — and today, I’m living the sweet life for free. All it takes is some comfortable shoes, knowledge of New York’s neighborhoods, and an email address I was willing to hand over to data miners.
Stores, restaurants, and small businesses offer free stuff to people celebrating their birthday, usually with some strings attached. I spent my special day trying to turn the tables on them, and collect as much birthday loot as possible while avoiding the cunning stratagems from online marketers.
I started with Rent the Runway, whose flagship location is right off Union Square (30 W. 15th St.). This company will give you a $30 credit toward a rental dress for your birthday — but you must sign up for the $30 a year “Pro” subscription. The subscription provides free shipping and insurance on orders, and is balanced out with the $30 credit. I used it for a couture Badgley Mischka cocktail dress and spent the entire day wearing $750 worth of “free” sequins.
First on the birthday To Do list was grooming, Benefit Cosmetics has several “Brows-A-Go-Go” salons in New York, including one in Chelsea (177 Seventh Ave.). At any time during the week of your birthday, you can get a free brow waxing (but tipping is polite).
Next was the 119 Fifth Ave. location of Sephora, where I had my choice of several free cosmetics items. This required registering for their free “Beauty Insider” account, but no purchase was necessary. While there, I took advantage of their free mini-makeovers to have the makeup around my eyebrows touched up.
Nearby, on Sixth Ave., between W. 14th and 15th Sts., a Pinkberry yogurt is on the same block as a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop. Both forced me to jump through online hoops before getting my free frozen treats. Baskin Robbins required me to register at baskinrobbins.com, and to bring a printed copy of the coupon. Pinkberry also required me to register an account online at pinkberry.com, and to download their app onto my phone.
Sugared up, but in need of caffeine, I turned to Starbucks. They give you a free cup of coffee on your birthday, but you have to sign up for their “Gold Star” program at starbucks.com, and actually buy something from a Starbucks before your birthday rolls around. At the Union Square Starbucks (they have locations at 10 Union Sq. E. and 25 Union Sq. West), my barista was quite happy to help me concoct a wildly extravagant cappuccino monstrosity for free.
Union Square is ground zero for gaining birthday loot. There’s a Sephora, NYX, Fresh Cosmetics, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Panera Bread, Chipotle, and Au Bon Pain in a convenient ring around the park — all of which have freebies for people who join their online rewards program. I made the circuit in less than an hour.
A pleasant surprise was the Union Square Chipotle (117 E. 14th St.). I wandered in, flashed my “Birthday Princess” sash and was promptly given a complimentary meal for me and my guest. No need to visit chipotle.com or even give them my email.
Another hotspot of freebies is Penn Station. Hooters, at 115 W. 33rd St., will give you a free plate of chicken wings if you register for their “eClub” online at originalhooters.com. You can’t get the wings to go, but that’s okay because the Hooters girls will gather round your table and sing you a birthday song. On the same block as Hooters is another Sephora, a Sbarro pizza (free slice with purchase of beverage), and, right next to the Penn Station entrance on Seventh Ave., a tiny Sprinkles Cupcakes kiosk. Register online at sprinkles.com, and they’ll give you a cupcake to go.
In the East Village, the International House of Pancakes (235-237 E. 14th St.) serves up a free stack of pancakes on your birthday, as well as a free stack just for signing up for a Pancake Revolution account (at ihop.com). Edible Arrangements (ediblearrangements.com) will give you a box of goodies, but there’s a catch: You need to spend $29 on their products before your birthday rolls around. The store manager at their 100 St. Marks Place location took pity on me and let me have a few chocolate-covered strawberries, anyway.
After eating all these free meals, I needed to burn off some calories. In the West Village, right across the street from the LGBT Center is the Integral Yoga Institute NYC (227 W. 13th St.). On your birthday, you and a pal can take a free class. Uptown and in Williamsburg is CorePower Yoga (corepoweryoga.com), which gives you a week of classes for registering on their site, plus an additional free class for your birthday. Birthday girls who want to earn their birthday spanking can get a free class at the 520 Eighth Ave. location of StripXpertease, which has exotic dance fitness, and even naughtier classes (stripxpertease.com).
Many of these companies were on the level and tossed me a gift, no strings attached — but most of the “free” offers came with a catch. Some required me to fork over my email address. Others demanded I buy something before getting the freebie.
We spoke with Gabe Carey, Junior Analyst at PCMag, about whether these offers are worth the potential consequences. “The moment you hand over your personal information to a company, you’re putting yourself at risk of identity theft,” Carey said. “Chain retailers, like Best Buy and like Starbucks, will tell you they won’t pawn your data to third parties, and unless there’s a massive loophole in their user agreement, they’re probably telling the truth. What they fail to disclose to you upfront, because they aren’t legally obligated to, is that data breaches — such as the infamous Equifax one that took place in the middle of last year — can put you at risk of your personal information going viral. As 4,000 cyber attacks happen every day, you have to ask yourself if that danger is worth the occasionally discounted Frappuccino.”
My royal birthday provided me with a couple hundred dollars of goods and services, but it also provided market researchers with information on my dining habits, makeup choices, exercise routines, and fashion sense. It was worth it for my special day — but according to Carey, “After that initial transaction takes place, you are no longer the customer. Instead, you’ve become the product.”