Volume Challenged

The Pantry keeps an eye on gasoline sales following 6.8% drop in comparable stores
SANFORD, N.C. -- Decreasing gas pricesand the resulting higher marginshave saved many a retailer's year financially. But consumers continue to show reluctance to return to their old driving habits. For September, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported traffic volume had dropped 4.4% almost 11 billion milescompared with a year earlier, and The Pantry, for one, is keeping its eye on such statistics.

We remain optimistic that we will seen improvement in gasoline comps as we move through the year, said chairman and CEO Peter Sodini during a recent conference call with [image-nocss] stock analysts, but there is a chance frightened consumers could continue to keep gasoline demand low.

During its fourth quarter, which ended in late September, The Pantry saw retail gasoline gallons sold drop 4.7% overall and 6.8% on a comparable store basis.

We experienced unprecedented and nearly continuous increases in oil and gasoline prices for the first three quarters of this year, which adversely affected our gas volume, merchandise sales and put significant pressure on gas margins, Sodini said. Federal data shows that many of the states where we operate have been among the hardest hit in the U.S. in terms of miles driven.

While trying to remain positive, Sodini further broke down the numbers for September:
Florida down 5.6%. Tennessee down 7.3%. Alabama down 6.2%. North Carolina down 6.1%. South Carolina down 8.4%. Georgia down 5.4% Composite down approximately 6.5%. This significant drop in miles driven, coupled with the [hurricane] storm impact in selected states caused our gasoline counts to be down 6.8% for the quarter, Sodini said. Obviously there is considerable uncertainty in the economic environment. There remains to be seen how gasoline demand will shake out over the months ahead.

We believe we should receive some benefit from the significant decline we've seen in gas prices, but the overall economy clearly continues to weaken.

For its part, the U.S. DOT reported the following regional breakdown for the drop in miles driven in September:
Northeast down 3.4%. South-Atlantic down 5.7%. North-Central down 4.0%. South-Gulf down 5.2%. West down 3.6%.

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