Gasoline discounts are the new front in the supermarket war for customers.
Save Mart and Foods Co. have launched discount gas programs in the Valley recently, part of an ongoing effort to make themselves as appealing as possible in a fiercely competitive industry.
The supermarkets -- along with several national retailers -- hope to cash in on consumers' concern over sky-high gasoline prices.
The average regular gas price in Fresno was $3.78 a gallon Saturday, 59 cents higher than this time last year, according to AAA.
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With that hit to the wallet in mind, Modesto-based Save Mart launched its Rewards Card program Monday in 30 stores in the central San Joaquin Valley.
Shoppers swipe a card at the cash register and get 5 cents off each gallon of a 20-gallon fill-up at area Shell stations for every $50 a month they spend.
The discount is cumulative, so if they spend $100 a month, they get 10 cents off per gallon, and so on. Customers have until the end of the following month to use the discount by swiping the card at the Shell station, said Save Mart spokeswoman Alicia Rockwell.
Offering programs like this gives shoppers a reason to go to Save Mart, she said.
Shell has done this program with other grocery stores in more than 100 markets nationwide.
The card Save Mart created for the program cannot be used at the same time as the existing S.H.A.R.E.S. card used to raise money for local organizations.
The fuel-discount program comes on the heels of Foods Co. unveiling its own gas discount.
The company built its first Foods Co. gas station in Fresno at Shields Avenue and First Street in January, then launched its Fuel Saver Rewards card.
Customers swipe the card at checkout, and for every $100 a month they spend, they get 10 cents off a gallon of gas at the Foods Co. station.
In February, Vons expanded its typical 3-cent discount for Vons cardholders at its Clovis gas station to 10 cents when customers spend $50 in one purchase.
CVS, meanwhile, is in the middle of its first summertime gas program, in which shoppers who spend $30 on qualifying items each week get a $10 gas card for Shell, BP or Arco.
Shoppers are tired of high gas prices, but more than half don't typically go out of their way to shop at a cheaper gas station, said Bill Rice, Fresno State marketing professor.
Once discounts are steep enough -- like 5 or 10 cents a gallon -- people will be inspired to go the extra mile, he said.
"There's a price point in people's minds that says, 'When I can save 'x' amount, I will make a change,' " Rice said.
Such gas promotions are likely to be more successful in Valley cities, compared to larger, busier areas like the Bay Area and Los Angeles, he said.
Drivers in those more densely populated areas tend to shop closer to home to avoid traffic and freeways, and often shop within a 1- to 2-mile radius, Rice said.
But in Fresno, with its flat terrain and light traffic, drivers may be more willing to drive farther for a deal, he said. Fresno drivers tend to shop within a 5-mile radius of their home.
The discount already has brought more customers to Shell stations in other areas where it has partnered with grocery stores, said Jim Perkins, Shell's national marketing alliance manager.
And Save Mart's Rockwell said she hopes the discounts will attract new customers and give existing ones a reason to stay.
"Anytime you can provide something to (the) shopper that builds their business and loyalty to your brand is a positive thing at the end of the day," she said.