CHICAGO — U.S. consumers paid 24 percent more for less gas last year, despite driving fewer miles, according to motor fuels research by market research firm the NPD Group.
NPD's Motor Fuels Index found that consumers paid 24 percent more dollars to purchase 1.7 percent fewer gallons in 2011 compared to 2010. The increased spending represents more than $76 billion dollars going into gas tanks in 2011 vs. the previous year.
The results of the Chicago-based firm's 2011 index—which continually tracks consumer motor fuel purchasing behaviors and attitudes—were reminiscent of 2008, NPD said, when the national average price for a gallon of gas remained above the $3 per gallon mark for 12 months (November 2007 to October 2008).
During that time, miles driven decreased by 55 billion miles. Prices once again crossed the $3 threshold in December 2010, NPD said, and remain above that level to date. Miles driven never fully recovered from the 2008 declines, and consumers cut back another 36 billion miles through December 2011.
“Consumers continue to modify driving patterns to purchase fewer gallons, but it isn't enough to offset price increases at the pump,” said David Portalatin, motor fuels analyst at NPD. “There's no doubt that the consumer is losing share of wallet at the pump despite trying to reduce consumption.”
With more of the wallet going towards gas, it means less to spend on other things, Mr. Portalatin pointed out. For example, NPD's Convenience Store Monitor, which tracks the consumer purchasing behavior of more than 51,000 c-store shoppers in the U.S., reports that total convenience store consumer traffic declined by 4 percent in 2011.
This effect was more severe at oil company-branded outlets that are typically more dependent on gasoline to drive customer traffic. Traditional convenience chains that are more diversified in their food and beverage offerings were better positioned to weather the trend, Mr. Portalatin said.
According to the most recent Motor Fuels Index findings, through March 2012, consumers have already cut back another 1 percent on gallon purchases of fuel but have spent 9 percent more for those gallons compared to the same time period a year ago.
“Gas prices have continued to increase into the spring of 2012 with more increases expected,” according to Mr. Portalatin. “And while seeing $3 plus on the pump is no longer the shock it once was, there is still only so much money in the wallet, and something will need to give in order to fill the tank.”