Discount at pump

J.D. Taylor of Woodlawn inserts his Safeway Club card to take advantage of a three-cent discount at the Catonsville Safeway on Baltimore National Pike (Baltimore Sun photo by Karl Merton Ferron / July 13, 2010)

Faith E. Wachter doesn't normally spend as much as $17 on shampoo in a single shopping trip. But by stocking up on haircare products recently, the Ellicott City resident saved more than $4 on gasoline for her car — and just in time for a drive to the beach.

In they look for ways to spend less on fuel, more Marylanders are headed to the supermarket.

Several chains are rewarding loyal customers with points they can redeem for discounts at the pump. And with the cost of a gallon of gas up a dollar from last summer, consumers say they are comparing the different programs — and, in some cases, shopping accordingly.

"It's like buying a winning lottery ticket," J.D. Taylor said as he filled up at the Safeway gas station in Catonsville.

"How can you lose?" the Woodlawn man asked. "The card is free."

Consumer advocates caution against the potential pitfalls of such programs. It's true, they say, that customers might save money, as long as they don't let the lure of discounts change their regular shopping habits.

But because it costs retailers money to offer and promote such discounts, they say, prices in general might be lower if they didn't exist in the first place.

"I don't think consumers benefit by encouraging these programs," said Joseph Ganem, a physicist at Loyola University Maryland who has written a book on how consumers are deceived by numbers.

"These companies are paying a lot to implement them," Ganem said. "You're paying for that."

The supermarket programs are pretty similar: for every dollar you spend, you earn a point. For every 100 points you redeem, you get a 10-cent-per-gallon break when you fill up at the pump.

As gas prices have climbed this year, so has the popularity of supermarket discount programs.

Participation in Giant Food's Gas Rewards program has increased by 5 percent in 2011, according to a spokesman. Giant has nine stations in Maryland, Washington and Virginia, spokesman Jamie Miller said, but customers may also redeem points at participating Shell stations.

Chris Brand, a spokesman for Martin's Food Markets, speaks of the instant gratification customers experience when they swipe their bonus cards at the pump and see the per-gallon price drop.

"That's always a thrill. I know I like it," he said.

And as gas prices increase, Brand said, "people begin to pay a little more attention to their points."

The average cost of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline in Maryland has fallen from a near-record $4.04 in May, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic, but remains high compared to a year ago. A gallon averaged $3.66 on Friday, up from $2.66 on the same date in 2010.

Maryland law prohibits the sale of gas below cost, according to Chuck Ulm, assistant director of the field enforcement division of the state comptroller's office. But under an opinion issued by the office to a state attorney general's office, combining cash with point redemption qualifies as payment, he said.

While the several programs are broadly similar, they differ in the details: How quickly the points expire, how many may be redeemed at one time, and who much gas can be purchased during a single visit.

Brand said pulling up a second vehicle for discounted gas while the pump is still active is prohibited for safety reasons.

Supermarkets offer different ways to collect additional points. At Safeway, customers may earn double points by buying gift cards — though cards that are redeemable at Safeway itself are not eligible, to prevent double-dipping, spokesman Greg Ten Eyck said.