Gas Prices May Rattle Retail in Recovery

Last Updated Sep 28, 2009 12:00 PM EDT

Fuel prices can be a big deal at retail, and although they might not be as big a deal to consumers as they were a year ago, research by The Nielsen Co., demonstrates that they still have an impact and suggests they could have a bigger one.

Of course, during the summer of 2008, gas prices in the United States hit record highs that surpassed $4 a gallon and changes in consumer behavior became evident. For instance, according to the research firm's ongoing gas impact study, 78 percent of consumers said that they combined errands and trips they might not have before. They began entertaining at home more and eating out less. Even behaviors such as brand switching and coupon use were affected, with consumers resorting to more of both as they sought to offset the discretionary income drain cased by paying more for gas. They also increased their use of supercenters -- a bonus for Walmart particularly and an incentive to the P-Freshment of increasingly food-oriented Target -- with 35 percent of consumers last year saying they were visiting the one-stop shops to help save money on fuel as opposed to 19 percent in the year before.

A year later, with gas prices falling to as little as $2.50 a gallon on average over the summer, consumers have relaxed a bit, although they aren't as loose as they were before 2008 as 71 percent reported that they are still combining errands to save on gas, down seven points from last year but above the 68 percent in summer 2007. As for socializing, 44 percent said they were happy entertaining at home, down seven points from 2008 but still higher than the 39 percent in 2007. Consumers still aren't eating out though, as 52 percent said that they were dining away from home less, the same proportion as in 2008, and considerably above the 38 percent who said the same in 2007. But there is a recession on. And consumers keep on visiting supercenters, as 34 percent said they are taking advantage of one-stop-shopping to offset other expenses.

Yet, it's not only supercenters among retailers that are enjoying advantages from higher fuel prices. Grocery-tied incentives are an important factor in where they purchase gas for about a quarter of consumers and, it would seem, an advantage for those retailers that offer them. Shoppers also continue to look for more inexpensive brands and use coupons to deal with gas and related considerations.

"With economic recovery beginning to take hold, it will be interesting to see if consumer behavior shifts considerably as they feel more confident about their circumstances," said Todd Hale, Nielsen senior vp consumer and shopper insights.

So, how will consumers balance better economic conditions and the increase in fuel prices that inevitably will come with it? Cash for Clunkers may wind up helping pricier specialty retailers. Autos that provide better mileage might offset the deterrent effect of increasing gas prices among former customers who have switched to less expensive alternatives in the recession as they contemplate returning to their old haunts in the recovery. Or they might not if gas price increases prove worrisome enough to offset fuel economies. In the struggle, call it Aeropostale versus Abercrombie, gas prices may weigh in.