Gasoline Consumers 'See No End in Sight' on Prices

Pessimism about economy grows as fuel costs climb, says NACS

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Consumers are increasingly pessimistic about the economy, and gasoline prices are a growing reason why, according to the results from the monthly NACS Consumer Fuels Survey. Nearly one quarter (23%) of consumers surveyed in a national poll of gasoline purchasers are "very pessimistic" about the economy, a significant increase from the 18% who said that they were very pessimistic in NACS' January consumer poll.

Consumers age 50 or older were the most pessimistic (27%), while those age 18 to 34 (16%) were the least pessimistic. Overall, 59% said that they were either "very pessimistic" or "somewhat pessimistic," a jump from the 54% who said that they were pessimistic in January.

Gasoline prices, which have steadily climbed since the beginning of the year, are clearly top of mind with consumers. Nearly half of all consumers (44%) surveyed now say that gasoline prices have a "great impact" in how they feel about the economy, a significant increase from the 38% who felt that way in January. Overall, 87% of consumers say that gasoline prices have an impact on their feelings about the economy.

"Gas has clearly gone beyond being just a commodity--it is also a leading indicator for how consumers feel about economic conditions, and that has implications for both our industry and the overall economy," said NACS vice president of government relations John Eichberger in January.

"The [latest] survey results confirm what our members are telling us: consumers are feeling the pain from higher gas prices, and this is affecting their feelings about the economy in general," Eichberger said. "Worse, consumers see no end in sight, with 62% saying that they expect prices to be even higher in the coming weeks."

NACS also asked consumers what are some of the causes for higher gasoline prices, with four in 10 correctly citing government regulations (41%) and world events (40%), but most consumers (71%) said that the oil companies were a reason for higher prices. In addition, 31% said that gasoline retailers were to blame.

When asked who is "most" to blame for higher prices, 45% of consumers cited oil companies, compared to only 4% who said gasoline retailers.

"While some consumers may seek to blame gas retailers for higher prices, fuels retailers have very little control over the market and are in fact struggling with the recent increase as well. Today, gross margins on fuel are only about 10 cents per gallon, far below the five-year average of 17 cents per gallon. With expenses, especially credit card swipe fees, averaging 12 to 16 cents per gallon, it's not a question of how much retailers are making per gallon, but if they are able to simply break even," said Eichberger.

NACS also asked consumers what they are doing to mitigate the pain of higher prices. The most frequently cited responses relate to miles driven, with 45% of consumers saying that they are driving less and 37% saying that they are combining trips. Government data confirms this trend, with the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reporting that gasoline demand was down 2.8% from in January compared to the month prior.

Consumers also are more aware of gasoline prices, with 30% shopping harder for lower prices, 24% using a gasoline discount or loyalty card, 22% shopping at partner stores that combine discounts and 18% buying from gas stations that offer special promotions.

In Jan. 2013, NACS began surveying consumers monthly about their feelings related to gasoline prices, the economy and other fuels-related issues. This latest survey was conducted by Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates LLC, which surveyed 972 gasoline consumers from Feb. 13-14, 2013. The margin of error for the entire sample is +/- 3.14 at the 95% confidence interval and higher for subgroups.

Founded in 1961 as the National Association of Convenience Stores, NACS is the international association for convenience and fuel retailing. It has 2,200 retail and 1,600 supplier member companies that do business in nearly 50 countries.