Retail’s Latest Worry: Rocketing Gas Prices Cost Shoppers Billions

With war, terrorism and the weak economy weighing on consumers, soaring gas prices are now taking more cash from them - and retailers.

But analysts and industry executives hint it might just be a matter of time before the skyrocketing price of gas means consumers cut back on discretionary purchases, particularly apparel.

"This is an issue that affects retailers in multiple ways," said J. Craig Shearman, senior director of media relations for the National Retail Federation. "There are transportation costs for merchandise, heating and air conditioning costs. Electricity is a major cost, not too far beyond employee salaries and real estate costs. But I don’t think we are at the point where $2 a gallon at the gas station is keeping customers from making a trip to stores.

"For some people, it may reach the point of affecting discretionary trips. I don’t think it’s quite there yet, but if fuel prices continue up, we could get there very soon. It might be felt first in resort destinations. People aren’t going to cancel a trip to the mall, where the difference between a $1.50 a gallon or $2 a gallon wouldn’t matter that much, but people may decide not to take a vacation where the fuel costs are significant, such as a drive cross-country or to the national parks, or from Washington D.C. to the Jersey shore. For retailers situated in these destination spots, where shopping is a major component of vacation activities, there could be an impact."

Some retail experts think stores catering to blue-collar markets with lower disposable incomes could get hurt more by fuel prices, compared with higher-end stores. But Shearman disagreed. "Discounters are less likely to be hurt. Those are mostly the close-to-home trips, where fuel prices aren’t going to have a whole lot of impact; it’s the long-term trips where it comes to play — some discounters, such as Costco, sell gas at cheaper prices." Wal-Mart also sells gas at a small number of its stores.

Shari Schwartzman Eberts, retail analyst for J.P. Morgan, differs. In a report, she cited a "strong negative correlation between same-store sales results and retail gasoline prices, particularly for the discount stores, where gas costs make up a greater portion of the consumers’ disposable income." She expects that if gasoline prices hold at current levels, comparisons will continue to remain under pressure.
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