Grocery Shopping Strategies: Gas Points and Fixing Mistakes

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Suburban stockade introduction Last week, we looked at how to use your Sunday grocery flyer and coupons to save money. This week, we’ll look at other ways grocery stores get you to spend more, and how to take advantage of those deals.

As an additional come-on to lure customers into the store, Giant Food offers gas points. Holders of the store’s loyalty card earn one gas point for every dollar spent on anything other than milk, half & half, and some other dairy products. Every 100 points earns a 10-cent-a-gallon discount on gas bought at the Giants that have gas stations, in our case the fancy one on PA39. Because of the way we drive, I redeem my gas points about every three to four weeks and receive a discount of between 40 to 70 cents a gallon. Giant gas is competitively priced to begin with, so this is a real discount.
grocery gas program
How does Giant afford this? First, many people who accrue gas points don’t redeem their points. They pay full price someplace else, rather than fill their gas tank with discounted gas at the grocery store. Grocery store gas isn’t any different than any other gas, and it comes in different octane ratings just like any service station. To which I can only say, thank you for subsidizing me!

Secondly, not every shopper has a loyalty card, so they don’t get the gas points. Again, thank you for subsidizing me!

Loyalty-card programs have one drawback; you’re giving the corporation permission to track your shopping. Does this put me in yet another database? It does, but in this case, it is a small price for me to pay to get the savings that I do. Since I do no social media and I rarely pay with a credit card, I figure my exposure to data-sucking giant squids is narrow. This is a personal choice, but loyalty cards do reward careful shoppers with better savings. I even get coupons in the mail from them, targeted to what I buy. It is your choice. If you want to balance loyalty card data-mining with the need for privacy, use the loyalty card and always pay with cash.

The third way that Giant supports the gas points program is more subtle. They advertise it far and wide: discounted gas! The store knows that plenty of people who might shop elsewhere come to Giant and hope that they’ll promptly turn into the ideal mindless customer. A customer who doesn’t bargain hunt, a customer who leaves one half of a BOGOF (buy one get one free) item on the shelf, a customer who pays full price rather than wait for a sale, a customer who impulse buys, a customer who doesn’t fulfill the requirements to get the lowest price. This person is a valued shopper at Giant; she opens her wallet and lets Giant vacuum the money. This customer subsidizes me, and when she forgets to redeem her gas points, subsidizes me further. Thank you!

Over the years, Giant has changed their gas points program. They used to let you buy up to 30 gallons at the discount price; it is now a maximum purchase of 25 gallons. This encourages people to fill up gas cans that they then top off their tank with later on in the week. I rarely do this, as we don’t use that much gas, so this is a way in which I subsidize those more organized gas users who show up at the pump with their five-gallon gas cans. Many of these people also have massive pickup trucks whilst I have a small sedan. They need to fill 3 five-gallon gas cans every time they buy gas for the tank in those trucks. I don’t have to. But, if we used more gas for commuting, I would fill up a five-gallon gas can or two every time I bought discounted gas.

Giant also has special sales tied into their gas points program. These are not as generous as they used to be. They offer a range of products, some on sale and some not, where if you buy seven items you earn an additional 40 cents off per gallon of gas. The choice of products and number needed to earn points varies from week to week. I check it every week, but since it tends to lean to heavily processed foods, health & beauty, and toxic cleaning products, it doesn’t always work for me. If it does, and the prices are good, I will take advantage of the sale. If not, I don’t worry about it.

Another way that Giant gives extra gas points that other people use to subsidize me is the gas points coupon. They run a coupon in the Sunday paper (home delivery or newsstand edition) whereby you purchase $50 (or more) worth of groceries and they give you 300 gas points (or 30 cents off per gallon) over and above what you would earn without the coupon. Once again, I routinely see customers who spend way more than the required amount and yet they do not have their gas coupon. The sale is there, waiting to be used, and yet people don’t bother.

If you feel particularly aggressive about maximizing your savings and minimizing your costs and you have the time and gas money, you should look at all the supermarket sale fliers. With your trusty price book, you figure out who has the rock-bottom price that week on peanut butter. Does it meet the price book standard? If so, you then go to the Weis supermarket, where you normally never shop, and buy as much of the peanut butter, at the rock bottom price, as you can. This is the only thing you buy.

In the marketing industry, this type of sale is called a loss leader. It is designed to get people to go into the store. Stores lose money on loss leaders but they make it up in spades when shoppers buy the loss leader and everything else. Only buying the loss leader is called cherry picking. Grocery stores hate cherry pickers as they have absolutely no store loyalty whatsoever and move from store to store purchasing only the very best deals. But don’t feel too bad for the stores, they calculate their discounts based on the presence of cherry pickers.

Cherry-picking requires time to read all the ads and more time and gas to travel back and forth between the various stores. You have to be very disciplined to do this successfully as the minute you start impulse buying on things you don’t normally see in your main store, you spent more money than the cherry picking saved you. You have to factor in your time and gas as well. If you live in a dense area, with many highly competitive supermarket chains, cherry picking can work really well. I don’t bother to cherry pick anymore as it isn’t worth my time or gas. I am so far along on the pantry principle that I can afford to wait until that item goes on sale at my price at my local store.

There is one final step that you take prior to leaving the grocery store. I keep track of my prices and write down the dollar value of each item I buy as I put it into the buggy. I round up or round down to the nearest whole dollar. This makes the adding easier, and I’m not usually off by too much. I subtract out any coupons as I go. This does two things.

First, I know approximately what I’m going to pay at the checkout. This is critical if I have limited dollars. I’m perfectly willing to put things back if I can’t afford them. A limited budget means I have to prioritize what I need the most, with the wants (like, *sigh*, mint Oreos) being left behind.

Secondly, if the cash register amount is way off, then I know that there is a mistake. As I’ve gotten better at this, the mistake nearly always turns out to be on the part of the grocery store cash register. Not every item is correctly rung up at the marked price. Not every coupon gets taken off like it should.

So after paying, I pause before leaving alongside the canned artificial baby milk display counter (formula is primarily made from discarded whey from the cheese industry with added vitamins) and I go over my receipt, item by item. This takes me about five minutes as I know what I bought and I know, thanks to writing down the prices, about what I paid for each item. I know what coupons I gave to the cashier. If there is a mistake, and there often is one, I get it fixed right away at the service counter.

Face it, if the cash register refused to ring up the 50-cents off coupon on any CareOne product (which happened to me recently), you are the only person who cares. And if you don’t get it fixed, while it is fresh in your mind and you have the receipt handy, you never will. You won’t remember to bring back the receipt the next time you shop. So I spend five minutes at the end of each shopping trip going over my receipt. Over the years, it has paid off in cash. I can prove my claim with the receipt and the service desk clerk has never, ever had a problem with giving me the money.

So pay attention when your groceries are being rung up! Now is not the time to get distracted. The cashiers don’t intend to make mistakes. In fact, it is very rarely the cashier’s fault unless she rings up an item twice. It is the computerized cash register system that is automatically making the error because the item’s price wasn’t entered correctly back at corporate. The cash register can only charge the price it was programmed with. With 50,000 items in a standard supermarket, it is a wonder that more things don’t get rung up wrong at the checkout.

So that’s how to maximize your food dollar at the grocery store: use the Pantry Principle, learn the store’s policies, read the ads, develop a price book, and stand up (politely!) when you’re being overcharged.

Next Week: A Date with Food Storage.