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Do all grocery store purchases earn grocery cash back rewards?

customers buying groceries at a market
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Credit card rewards can be a perk of owning a card and using it responsibly. They could be in the form of airline miles and hotel points or cashback rewards that give you back a percentage of your purchases in the form of cash. For instance, the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express card offers 6 percent cash back on U.S. supermarket purchases (up to $6,000 per year, then 1 percent).

Reader Ruben writes that his Discover credit card offers 5 percent cash back for grocery purchases, and he wonders which purchases qualify. Select Discover cards earn 5 percent cash back: You earn 5 percent back on rotating categories each quarter on up to $1,500 in combined spending per quarter and then 1 percent (activation required). 

“I just have a general question about cash back resulting in the groceries category,” he says. “When they say groceries, do they mean strictly food-related items or can other items sold (say at a Ralphs) also be counted towards the cash back rewards? I mainly want to know for the 5 percent cash back my current Discover credit card holds. Am I receiving the 5 percent on all purchases at the grocery store, or are some items deemed 1 percent cash back?”

Check the merchant category code for the retailer

Card issuers assign different categories (or merchant category codes) based on what sort of business the merchant is in. These codes determine which retailers qualify for a specific rewards category.

These categories could include restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, department stores, home improvement stores and office supply stores. Some merchants may not qualify for cash back rewards in a certain category even though you might think they do. For instance, Chase explains, “Restaurant category merchants’ primary business is sit-down or eat-in dining, including fast food restaurants and fine dining establishments.”

This means if you make purchases from merchants selling food and drink that operate within sports stadiums, casinos, theme parks, groceries, hotels and department stores, these purchases will not qualify to earn you cash back rewards under the restaurant category by default. Only if the merchant has set up such purchases to be classified in the restaurant category will you get cashback rewards under the restaurant category.

Grocery store cash back rewards

Similarly, Chase includes in its grocery store category “supermarkets, merchants that offer a full-service grocery line of merchandise including a deli and bakery as well as smaller grocery stores.”

The issuer doesn’t count warehouse stores and discount stores that sell a large range of goods, including groceries, in this category. Drugstores and merchants that sell only a few grocery items don’t qualify for grocery store cash back rewards as well. And if you buy groceries while at a gas station, that doesn’t count for grocery store cash back rewards either.

And according to Discover: “Grocery Store purchases include those made at supermarkets, meat lockers, bakeries, smaller grocery stores, and grocery delivery services. All purchases made at Walmart, Target, convenience stores, wholesale clubs, discount stores, and supercenters are not eligible.”

Ruben, what you need to know is whether Discover classifies a store you are interested in as a grocery store. Then, the purchases you make at that store would qualify for grocery cash back rewards. The rewards would apply to other purchases besides food items.

That doesn’t mean you should stock up on all sorts of purchases from your preferred grocery store just to qualify for a grocery cash back reward. Other stores that specialize in hardware items, for example, might offer a better price for such items than your local grocery store. If you bought hardware items from a grocery store, you may be paying a higher price—even after taking into account any cash back rewards earned.

The bottom line

Card issuers classify retailers into various merchant category codes based on the business type. This determines whether you will get rewards under a specific category for shopping at a certain store.

In general, if a store is classified as a grocery store, and you have a credit card that rewards groceries, you will get rewards for the grocery category for purchases besides groceries made at that store. Ruben, you should check with your issuer to see if the store you prefer qualifies for grocery cash back rewards.

Contact me at pthangavelu@redventures.com with your credit card-related questions.

Written by
Poonkulali Thangavelu
Senior Reporter
Poonkulali Thangavelu is a senior writer and columnist at CreditCards.com and Bankrate, addressing debt and credit card-related legal and regulatory issues.
Edited by
Senior Editor