Consumers driven to track down discounts at the gas pump
Dean Morse regularly saves as much as $8 on a tank of gas at the pump by combining a 5 percent credit card gas discount from AAA with grocery store points racked up on his Stop & Shop card.
"By the time I pull up, I have 400 points, which is 40 cents a gallon, and you add to that the percentage off with the Visa card, and I do save money," the Norwich motorist said.
With a gallon of gas at about $4, consumers are looking for ways to lessen the pain at the pump.
"People are really mad about paying more money for gas," said Fred Weil, president of the Tampa, Fla.-based Business Outsourcing Solutions, which works with marketing partners to enable the use of rewards cards for grocers and convenience stores around the country. "These days, when people go to a supermarket, they're more interested in how much gas money they can earn than how much they save buying bananas."
In Connecticut, as well as other states, Stop & Shop and Big Y have rewards programs that can knock 10 to 20 cents and more off a gallon of gas. Both supermarkets have partnered with suppliers - Stop & Shop with Waterford Hendel's Henny Pennys and participating Shell stations, and Big Y with a variety of gas stations in western Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Other gasoline retailers, such as Irving Oil and ExxonMobil, have introduced programs to an even wider audience.
"All of these businesses stand to lose by people staying home and not driving their cars, so they have an incentive to get creative and start these marketing campaigns," said Gabriel Shenhar, a Consumer Reports senior auto test engineer and program manager based in Connecticut.
Retailers see an opportunity to command more loyalty from customers and market more products to them, Weil said.
While none of the grocers or oil companies would share actual sales or traffic figures, saying the information is proprietary, Steve Lancia, wholesale area manager for Shell Oil, and Terrance J. Crowley, the gasoline division manager of Hendel's, acknowledged that the promotions have helped sales.
"It's terrific," Lancia said. "The idea behind it is really to build loyalty with Stop & Shop and Shell. People have to drive, people have to shop, and it is a way to bring real value to the consumer."
Deals and more deals
At Irving stations, like those in Old Lyme and Old Saybrook, every $200 in fuel purchased through Aug. 31 earns 10 cents off per gallon at the next fill-up. Anybody who registers is entered to win free gas for a year, with one winner from each New England state, and the company is giving away 100 $100 gas cards, said spokesman E.J. Powers.
"It's clear that the price of gas has an impact on consumers, and we feel this program is timed in such a way it can really help alleviate some of those concerns at the pump and encourage families to travel more," Powers said. "It not only provides immediate savings at the pump, it also has a fun aspect to it."
Consumers are quick to point out that time limits can restrict the fun: Irving's program ends when summer ends. Stop & Shop rewards, which accumulate in 10-cent increments for every 100 points, expire 30 days from each date of purchase.
"You have to use them or lose the points," said Jenn Pitt of Waterford, who also shops at Walmart and BJs to save money on groceries. Pitt recently saved 5 cents a gallon on 10 gallons at the Stop & Shop pump in Waterford.
"I'm a single mom," she said. "I don't make a lot of money so you've got to count all your pennies. It's hard. It's hard for everyone."
Gas perks at Big Y don't expire, said Harry Kimball, director of database marketing. Big Y has added gasoline discounts of 5 or 20 cents off with its existing coin rewards program, he said.
"We've had this coin program for a good dozen years, and we decided a couple of years ago to add a gas element to that," Kimball said. "We did it to enhance our rewards program in total. We see this as being an added value for customers. All the stations that participate have been happy about the results."
At Stop & Shop, weekly promotions add to regular savings. Stephanie Hines of New London recently earned 400 points by buying three large packages of chicken thighs, as advertised in the company flier. She has a family of five to feed, she said.
"It's a good deal," she said.
Besides engendering customer loyalty, some discount cards enable analytics, or tracking of data that can be used to market other products or services to customers. Usually, said Weil, customers can opt out if they choose, but if they opt in, the seller has a distinct advantage.
"We know what they bought, we know what they like, and now we can do what's called target marketing," Weil said.
Irving Oil confirmed that it uses information it culls from its cards, but said how it uses them is proprietary. Stop & Shop declined comment. ExxonMobil does not track card data, spokeswoman Laura Paredes said.
ExxonMobil offers a "SpeedPass," a transponder on a key fob that syncs with credit card information when waved in front of the pump. Data is protected so credit card information cannot be used if the pass is lost or stolen, Paredes said. Consumers who register online get 15 cents off per gallon, up to 100 gallons, for 60 days, she said. The promotion began May 2.
"It's really exciting when you're at the pump to see a price roll down," she said. "Fifteen cents counts."
ExxonMobil also has introduced a soon-to-be-implemented loyalty program to its branded wholesalers, who are working to customize it for their stations, Paredes said.
Some companies, like BJs, which has a store in Waterford, have sold gasoline competitively for years, without offering targeted discounts.
"Our gas prices are among the very lowest in each market," said BJs spokeswoman Kelly McFalls. "We have to be because you have to pay for membership in order to buy gas."
Although she could not provide figures, McFalls said the number of members using BJs gas stations has increased as gas prices have gone up. In particular, customers like the convenience of "one-stop-shopping," she said.
Brenda Brown of Salem, a single parent who drives a 2009 Honda Accord and works at Pfizer Inc. in Groton, has been buying her gas at BJs for eight years and recently added Stop & Shop to her list of destinations because of the possible savings.
"Those are the only two places I usually get my gas," she said. "With the price of gas the way it is, BJs is 10 cents cheaper than any gas station in the area on average. It's definitely worth it."
Sheila Manke of South Kingstown, R.I., has been culling savings at the Stop & Shop pumps for three years.
"I love seeing how much I saved on that fill-up," she wrote in an email. "It makes the pain of my gas bill just a little lighter. But it is like a 1-inch Band-Aid over a 7-inch gash. It only helps a little."