Plenty of drivers are worked up about the cost of gasoline. In a recent survey, 85% of Americans said that the government should take “immediate actions” to rein in fuel prices. But while there’s no denying people are agitated and eager to find someone to blame for prices at the pump rising 18% since December, the numbers seem to indicate that the anger isn’t translating into consumers taking action or significantly changing their behavior. At least not yet anyway
An NPR story tosses out the pun that drivers are “fuming” over surging gas prices. Participants in one poll name the Obama administration, the oil companies, or Iran as the forces most to blame for soaring prices. In another survey, drivers say that they “may” have to begin dining out less, scale back spending on movies and concerts, or cut back on driving in order to cope with gas price hikes.
Yet, a USA Today story that focuses on the hard numbers of the marketplace seems to show that, thus far at least, most consumers seem to be accepting rising gas prices with little more than a shrug. Well, perhaps a shrug and a few choice curse words.
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When gas prices rise high enough to change consumer behavior, the effects can be seen not only in gallons sold at the pump but in revenues at stores and restaurants. This is so not only because people are trying to save money by cooking at home and cutting back on shopping excursions, but also because most consumers get to stores and restaurants via car—and cars require gas. If high gas prices are hammering drivers’ in the pocketbook, they’re going to take fewer trips going anywhere, including the mall.
The recent sales figures, however, show that there isn’t much scaling back occurring lately. Retail sales in February were up 1.1% from January, and restaurant sales were up 8.2% compared to the year before:
“There’s absolutely no evidence of a loss of retail sales from the upturn in energy prices,” said John Lonski, chief capital markets economist at Moody’s Analytics. “There’s a lot of discretionary spending going on — and you have to drive to go out to eat.”
At some level, though, it appears as if consumers may be adapting to higher gas prices in a few ways, such as purchasing more fuel-efficient cars and perhaps driving a bit less. But gasoline consumption and miles driven per person has been on a decline for several years—long before the recent rise in gas prices. And while the average new car sold in February had a highest-ever average of 23.2 mpg, overall fuel efficiency has been increasing incrementally as well, from 22.9 mpg in January and 21.4 mpg in February of 2011.
It’s hard to tell to what extent three months of soaring gas prices may be influencing consumers’ decisions to consider driving less and/or purchasing smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. But because these trends are older than the recent price hikes at the pump, they can’t be entirely responsible for tweaks in consumer behavior.
On the other hand, the USA Today story mentions improving employment figures and even this year’s mild winter, which allowed homeowners to get away with spending less to heat their homes, as reasons why today’s gas prices don’t seem to be having much impact on consumer behavior.
On the topic of high gas prices of late, one woman quoted in the NPR story wondered, “How long is this going to last? Because this is kind of making me broke.” The assumption seems to be that the price increases are temporary. If that’s your assumption, then it seems reasonable to feel little need to cut back on shopping and going out to eat. But as high gas prices linger, and perhaps even start to feel permanent, that’s when changes will start to feel necessary.