To spend or not to spend since gas prices are higher

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As gas prices continue to creep up, some of us may be having recurring nightmares of the summer of 2008. Remember when average gas prices rose to $4.11 per gallon? (I still shudder at the thought). According to recent research done by my employer, The Nielsen Company, with the average price of gas currently at $3.05 per gallon, it’s predicted that we are well on our way to rivaling those 2008 levels. So the question becomes, how will we, as consumers, react to higher gas prices, especially in an economy fraught with uncertainty?

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During the summer of ’08, U.S. consumers responded by reducing shopping trips, eating out less, buying for value and using more coupons. It was during that year that people eliminated unnecessary travel and did more at home in an effort to save money. That was when the “staycation” came into existence—you know, when it suddenly became “chic” to stay at home for our vacation? (When I was growing up there wasn’t anything “chic” about hanging out at home for a vacation, that’s just what a family with six kids did! I wonder if my mom and dad knew their decisions back then would be considered “chic” now?) So will consumers react in a similar fashion in 2011 as gas prices continue to rise?

Last Spring as I prepared to drive off the dealer’s lot in a spankin’ new car, the sales guy beamed at me and said, “We’ve filled up the tank for you!” In my head, I thought, “Whoopty doo! I’ve just added additional debt for three years and you give me a measly tank of gas?” But honey, I changed my tune the first time I filled that tank up myself and those obnoxious little flipping numbers kept flying by—right past the $60 mark. “Buyer’s remorse” sprang to mind as I wondered if I’d bought a gas guzzler. But, I can’t honestly say my next thought was “We’ll be eating Ramen Noodles from here on out.” But, research shows there is an absolute correlation between increasing gas prices and an increase in at-home consumption.

Even during normal times African-American households typically spend more of our income on food consumed at home—61.5 percent. We also tend to spend more in Drug and Dollar Stores. For some reason, however, we tend to buy less on deal (3.1 percent vs. 4.4 percent) and less with coupons (21.3 percent compared to 24.7 percent) than other demographic groups. As 2011 gas prices increase Nielsen research reports that U.S. consumers across the board (82 percent) are making more frequent food shopping trips, but buying less on each trip. This trend seems to be driven by rising gas costs coupled with elevated levels of unemployment. The shopping trips we’re making are classified as “immediate need” and “fill-in” trips.

Before I joined The Nielsen Company I had no idea that consumer grocery shopping trips are divided into four categories: Immediate: low-value, instant-need items, with an average shopping basket totaling $15; Fill-In: Slightly higher-value items, averaging $51; Routine: Weekly, high value shopping trips, averaging $98; and Stock-Up: Large shopping trips averaging $242. All I knew was I needed “to go to the store!” But in the world of Consumer Packaged Goods  there’s even a science of sorts to understanding the definition of what “the store” is. There are grocery stores, supercenters, mass merchandisers, drug stores, warehouse clubs, convenience stores/gas and finally, dollar stores. Who knew?!

Well, now you do. And the reason you should care about this—as you decide between buying that new car (I love mine and we only do Ramen Noodles a few meals a week so it’s totally worth it) or to keep your hoopty’ and take the kids down south to see the grandparents this summer—is that retailers and manufacturers are constantly evaluating how best to attract you and your business. Especially during challenging economic times. They pay attention to what the trends are and plan their sales and marketing pitches to you accordingly. They realize you are evaluating your every spend more closely. But at the end of the day you have the upper hand because you get to choose where and how you are going to shop or (or not).

(Cheryl Pearson-McNeil is senior vice president of public affairs and government relations for the Nielsen Co., the world’s leading marketing research company. To learn more about consumer trends and insights go to http://www.nielsenwire.com.)

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