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What Consumers Say About Fueling

The price of gas affects how consumers think about broader economic issues, especially since gas process account for around 4% of consumer spending in any given year.


Published: March 1, 2017


No matter if gas prices are $4 or $2 per gallon, how much consumers pay at the pump always seem to be a topic of discussion, and sometimes angst. Gas prices also affect how consumers think about broader economic issues, especially since refueling vehicles accounts for about 4% of consumer spending a year.

In particular, we examine:

  • Consumer perceptions: Gas prices
  • Consumer perceptions Fueling
  • Consumer perceptions: Fuel retailers
  • How gas prices affect spending

NACS has surveyed consumers about their perceptions related to gas prices since 2007 and has conducted monthly consumer sentiment surveys since 2013. NACS commissioned Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates LLC to conduct 1,114 online interviews with adult Americans on January 3-6, 2017. The margin of error for the entire sample is +/- 2.95% at the 95% confidence interval and higher for subgroups. Below are the questions and overall responses.

Consumer Perceptions: Gas Prices
Gas prices tend to increase during the first few months of the year as the petroleum industry undergoes the spring transition to summer-blend fuel. This transition requires the production of unique fuel blends across the United States at a time of increased demand. Since 2000, this transition has led to an average price increase of 53 cents between early February and the seasonal peak, which most often occurs in late May.

Interestingly, consumers expect gas prices to increase about 50 cents over the course of 2017. They were asked what they think the price will be on January 1, 2018, given that that national average for gas prices was $2.34 per gallon at the beginning of 2017.

Q: What do you think the national average price of gas will be one year from now?

($) Estimated gas price on Jan. 1, 2018​ ​
​Mean ​2.84
​Median ​2.70
​Mode ​2.50
​Standard deviation ​0.73

Consumers expect prices to increase. But do they also think that prices increase faster than they decrease?

Q: Do gas prices usually increase or decrease faster?

​(%) Gas Consumers 2017 ​ ​ ​ Age​ ​ ​
​18-34 ​35-49 ​50+
​Gas prices usually go up more quickly than they go down 75​ ​67 ​72 ​82
​Gas prices go up and down at about the same rate ​23 ​28 ​26 ​17
Gas prices usually go down more quickly than they go up​ ​2 ​5 ​2 ​1

Older consumers are most likely to believe that prices increase quicker than prices decrease (82%), while younger consumers are least likely to agree (67%) with that sentiment. For the record, prices roughly go up at the same rate they fall.

Consumers also think that gas prices rise due to global reasons, as opposed to the local store owner trying to make a profit.

Q: Which of the following reasons is most to blame when gas prices go up? 

(%) Gas Consumers 2017​ ​ ​ ​ ​Age ​ ​
​18-34 ​35-49 ​50+
​Manipulation of prices OPEC and countries like Saudi Arabia 29​ ​19 ​25 ​38
Oil companies are increasing profits​ ​21 ​22 ​24 ​19
​Global conflicts like those in the Middle East ​13 ​17 ​16 ​8
Oil speculators on Wall Street​ ​8 ​6 ​7 ​10
The world is running out of petroleum, current oil production is declining​ ​7 ​15 ​6 ​2
Lack of government oversight/politicians not doing their job​ ​6 ​5 ​7 ​6
Increased demand for gasoline in countries like China and India​ ​5 ​4 ​5 ​5
Gas stations trying to increase profits​ ​4 ​6 ​4 ​3
​Stricter environmental regulations, such as additives to cut out auto emissions ​3 ​3 ​3 ​4
​Other ​3 ​2 ​3 ​4
 

 Older consumers are twice as likely as younger consumers to blame OPEC for price increases (38% vs. 19%), which may be based on their memory of previous oil price spikes in the 1970s than the current marketplace. The good news for retailers is than only one in 25 consumers (4%) say that the retailer is the cause of rising prices.

Consumer Perceptions: Fueling
What do consumers think about fueling? We presented them with a few statements, some true and some false, but all common to the retail fuels industry. Here’s what we learned about their perceptions, and misperceptions.

Q: Static electricity can cause fueling fires at the pump: true or false?
Two-thirds of consumers correctly agreed that static electricity can cause fires, particularly in the dry, winter months.

​ (%) Gas Consumers 2017​ ​ ​ ​Gender ​ Age​ ​ ​
​M ​F ​18-34 ​35-49 ​50+
​True ​66 ​70 ​62 ​58 ​67 ​71
​False ​13 ​15 ​12 ​16 ​13 ​11
​Don't know ​21 ​15 ​26 ​26 ​20 ​18

While these fires are extremely rare, given that there are nearly 40 million safe fill-ups every day, precautions can be taken to further reduce the risk. The Petroleum Equipment Institute launched a “Stop Static” campaign at pei.org/static.

By a two-to-one margin, consumers also correctly agreed that many convenience store operators are small businesses. Approximately 58% of all c-stores are one-store operations.

Q: Most c-stores are small businesses, even if they sell gas from a national oil brand: true or false?

​ (%) Gas Consumers 2017​ ​ ​ ​Gender ​ Age​ ​ ​
​M ​F ​18-34 ​35-49 ​50+
​True ​57 ​62 ​52 51 52 ​66
​False 26 ​24 ​28 ​30 ​29 20
​Don't know 17 ​14 20 20 19 ​14

Consumers again correctly said that gas prices tend to increase in the spring because of environmental regulations.

Q: Gas prices go up in the spring because different fuel blends must be made and distributed for the summer months to meet environmental regulations: true or false?

​ (%) Gas Consumers 2017​ ​ ​ ​Gender ​ Age​ ​ ​
​M ​F ​18-34 ​35-49 ​50+
​True 48 56 40 37 46 56
​False 21 18 ​23 ​23 ​24 16
​Don't know 32 ​26 37 40 30 ​27

And, by a nearly two-to-one margin, consumers correctly agreed that convenience stores only make about a nickel per gallon in profit.

Q: Convenience stores only make about 5 cents of profit per gallon sold: true or false?

​ (%) Gas Consumers 2017​ ​ ​ ​Gender ​ Age​ ​ ​
​M ​F ​18-34 ​35-49 ​50+
​True 43 50 35 34 40 50
​False 22 19 26 ​26 22 20
​Don't know 35 ​31 39 40 38 ​29

For each of the four above correct statements, younger consumers and women were least likely to agree, meaning that retailers have an opportunity to better communicate to these specific demographics.

We also provided statements that were not true. And consumers also agreed, but in smaller numbers.

Q: Cell phones can cause fueling fires at gas stations: true or false?

​ (%) Gas Consumers 2017​ ​ ​ Track​ ​ ​Gender ​ Age​ ​ ​
'16​ ​'15 ​M ​F ​18-34 ​35-49 ​50+
​True 46 ​43 ​37 41 50 39 53 45
​False 33 ​28 ​33 39 28 ​40 32 29
​Don't know 21 ​29 ​31 ​20 23 20 16 ​26

Cell phones cannot cause fires at the pump. This myth has been debunked numerous places, including the television show “MythBusters.” There is no external spark with a cell phone that could trigger a fire. However, retailers often discourage cell phone use at the pump so that people pay more attention to fueling.

Consumer Perceptions: Fuel Retailers
Consumers have a positive opinion about retailers who sell fuel. Two-thirds (66%) of consumers surveyed say that convenience stores share their values.

Q: Do you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree that convenience stores share your values and do business the right way?

​ (%) Gas Consumers 2017​ ​ ​ ​Gender ​ Age​ ​ ​
​M ​F ​18-34 ​35-49 ​50+
Strongly agree 11 12 10 19 10 6
Somewhat agree 55 56 54 ​56 58 52
Somewhat disagree 29 27 32 23 28 ​35
Strongly disagree​ 5​ ​5 ​5 ​2 ​5 7​

Younger consumers are most likely to agree (75%) that they like the business practices exhibited by convenience stores.

Consumers were a bit more split on the makeup of the industry, which they believe is a mix of national chains, local businesses and oil companies.

Q: When you think about who owns convenience stores, which comes to mind first?

​ ​(%) Gas Consumers 2017
National chains​ ​46
​Local businesses ​30
​Oil companies ​11
​Other ​2
​Don’t know ​11

No matter who owns the store, consumers are certain about one thing: they want lower prices at the pump. And there were some interesting findings when we asked consumers what they would like convenience stores to do differently.

Q: If you could tell a convenience store owner to do one thing differently, what would it be? (open-ended question in which similar responses were grouped)

​ ​ ​ ​(%) Gas Consumers 2017 Gender​ ​ Age​ ​ ​
​M ​F ​18-34 ​35-49 ​50+
​Lower your prices 23​ ​26 ​21 ​16 ​23 ​28
​Nothing/I wouldn’t tell them to do anything ​17 ​16 ​18 ​14 ​14 ​22
Clean more; keep the store clean; make sure the restrooms are clean​ ​10 ​8 ​11 ​15 ​6 ​8
Improve customer service: be friendlier; greet the customers; treat the customer like they are family, etc.​ ​5 ​5 ​5 ​6 ​5 ​3
​Have sales/discounts; have a customer loyalty program; have free things ​4 ​3 ​5 ​5 ​6 ​3
Have higher quality products; sell healthier foods; sell fresh foods​ ​4 ​3 ​5 ​3 ​7 ​3
Employees: hire more employees; have happier staff; hire better staff, etc.​ ​3 ​3 ​3 ​3 ​3 ​4
​Nothing, they are fine the way they are; all positives ​3 ​5 ​2 ​4 ​3 ​3
​Other ​12 ​12 ​12 ​11 ​12 ​12
Don't know/no response​ ​10 ​12 ​7 ​14 ​9 ​7

 
There were definite variations by demographic. Lower prices are of most interest to men (26%) and older consumers (28%) while cleanliness is important to younger consumers (15%) and females (11%).

How Gas Prices Affect Spending
Consumers perceive gas prices as good for the economy; more than 8 out of 10 consumers believe that statement, but the percentage has declined 7 points over the past two years.

Q: Do you think low gasoline and oil prices are good or bad thing for the U.S. economy? 

​​ ​ ​​ ​(%) Gas Consumers 2017 Track​ ​
'16​ ​'15
Good​ ​84 ​85 ​91
​Bad ​16 ​15 ​9
 

A bigger question to learn from consumers is whether lower gas prices are positive for their spending.

Q: How much do gas prices impact your feelings on the economy?  

​(%) Gas consumers
JAN 2017​​​ ​
DEC NOV OCT SEPT AUG JUL JUN MAY APR MAR FEB JAN 2016 ​JAN 2015 ​JAN 2014 ​JAN 2013
Great impact​ 27​ 27​ ​25 ​25 ​24 ​22 ​22 ​24 ​31 ​28 ​30 ​27 ​30 ​34 ​38 ​27
Some impact​ 52​ ​51 ​50 ​51 ​50 ​49 ​49 ​52 ​48 ​49 ​47 ​46 ​51 ​51 ​50 ​48

For one, gas prices impact their feelings about the U.S. economy. Roughly 8 of 10 consumers say that gas prices affect their feelings about the economy, whether over the past 12 months or in each of the past few years.

But do gas prices affect consumer spending? Consumer spending increased in traditionally strong spending months (November and December). It doesn’t appear that low gas prices significantly increase overall consumer spending, at least in the short term.

Q: Thinking of all the shopping you do on a regular basis (excluding gas), will you be able to spend more or less in the coming month than last month?

​(%) Gas consumer JAN 2017 ​ DEC NOV OCT SEPT AUG ​JUL JUN MAY APR​ ​MAR ​FEB ​JAN 2016
I will spend much more this month​ ​4 ​9 ​8 ​3 ​6 ​5 ​3 ​6 ​7 ​6 ​6 ​6 ​3
​I will spend somewhat more this month ​14 ​24 ​22 ​14 ​17 ​15 ​13 ​17 ​19 ​17 ​13 ​15 ​11
I will spend about the same this month​ ​54 ​49 ​52 ​63 ​60 ​64 ​63 ​68 ​55 ​60 ​63 ​67 ​60
I will spend somewhat less this month​ ​20 ​13 ​13 ​15 ​13 ​13 ​15 ​15 ​15 ​13 ​12 ​12 ​18
I will spend much less this month​ ​8 ​5 ​5 ​4 ​3 ​3 ​5 ​4 ​5 ​4 ​5 ​4 ​8
​Self-reported median gas price 2.30 ​2.19 ​2.15 ​2.20 ​2.20 ​2.10 2.26 ​2.38 ​2.20 ​2.00 ​1.80 ​1.79 ​1.98

Consumer spending may be more of a long-term issue. Consumers were more eager to spend in January 2017 than in each of the two previous years.

Past 2 Years​ ​ ​ ​ ​ ​ (%) Gas consumers JAN ‘17​ ​ ​JAN '16 ​JAN '15
​I will spend much more this month 4​ ​3 ​3
​I will spend somewhat more this month ​14 ​11 ​13
​I will spend about the same this month ​54 ​60 ​58
​I will spend somewhat less this month ​20 ​18 ​18
​I will spend much less this month ​8 ​8 ​7

Finally, how might any gas price increases affect how consumers shop for fuels? Overall, consumers say that gas prices would have to increase by more than $1 per gallon before they cut back on consumption.

Q: At what price would gasoline be expensive enough that you would try to reduce how much you drive?  

​ ​($) Gas price Jan. 2017 DEC NOV OCT SEPT AUG JUL JUN MAY APR MAR FEB ​JAN 2016
​Mean 3.37 ​3.39 ​3.37 ​3.45 ​3.46 ​3.52 3.58 ​3.51 ​3.36 ​3.34 ​3.31 ​3.36 ​3.46
​Self-reported median gas price 2.30 ​2.19 ​2.15 ​2.20 ​2.20 ​2.10 2.26 ​2.38 ​2.20 ​2.00 ​1.80 ​1.79 ​1.98
​Difference between median gas price and mean price for change $1.07 ​1.20 ​1.18 ​1.25 ​1.26 ​1.42 1.32 ​1.13 ​1.16 ​1.34 ​1.51 ​1.57 ​1.48

And prices would have to increase by more than $2 per gallon before consumers would seek out alternative modes of transportation, or drastically cut back on driving.

Q: At what price would gasoline be so expensive that you would seek out an alternative to driving, or drive drastically less?

​ ​($) Gas price Jan. 2017 DEC NOV OCT SEPT AUG JUL JUN MAY APR MAR FEB ​JAN 2016
​Mean 4.43 ​4.43 ​4.40 ​4.52 ​4.44 ​4.57 4.71 4.61 ​4.41 4.46 ​4.41 ​4.48 4.53
​Self-reported median gas price 2.30 ​2.19 ​2.15 ​2.20 ​2.20 ​2.10 2.26 ​2.38 ​2.20 ​2.00 ​1.80 ​1.79 ​1.98
Difference between median gas price and mean price for change $2.13 2.26 ​2.25 ​2.32 ​2.24 ​2.47 2.45 2.23 ​2.21 ​2.46 ​2.61 ​2.69 ​2.55
 

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