ALEXANDRIA, Va. — More than half of U.S. consumers have been taking advantage of lower gas prices to build up their nest egg or pay off debt. But still others are using the extra cash in their pockets to treat themselves.
According to recent surveys by NACS, the Association for Convenience & Fuel Retailing, consumers are embracing the extended period of lower gas prices, while overwhelming saying that low prices are good for the U.S. economy.
However, they differ on what they are doing with the savings at the pump. While income was up 4.5 percent in 2015, spending only increased 3.4 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Consumers were clearly saving more as a whole, but economic growth for the year was only 2.4 percent, NACS said.
The association found that 54 percent of all consumers are either saving more or paying off debts. Nearly four in 10 (38 percent) are spending the money on day-to-day essentials, while only 6 percent are spending the money on items they otherwise wouldn't purchase.
That doesn't mean businesses are not seeing any benefits from lower gas prices. According to NACS, hospitality- and travel-affiliated sectors saw strong growth in 2015 as car sales set a record and global air travel surged 6.5 percent. In addition, for the first time ever, U.S. consumers spent more money eating out than in their homes.
"The best news may be for convenience stores, which are closely aligned with both the food and transportation industries and are already benefiting from the growth of these two sectors. Those who shop in convenience stores at least weekly are the highest percentage of Americans (96 percent) who strongly believe that lower gas prices will have a very strong effect on the economy," said NACS Vice President of Strategic Industry Initiatives Jeff Lenard.
"And, with convenience stores selling 80 percent of the gas purchased in the United States, they are well positioned to capture in-store sales from consumers who may spend more in stores because of lower gas prices," he added.
Nearly all Americans (93 percent) also are in agreement that lower petroleum prices will have an effect on the U.S. economy. Also, slightly more agree that lower oil and gas prices make it easier to travel and go on vacation. Americans aged 65 or older almost unanimously agree at 99 percent, NACS noted.
According to the association, some groups feel more strongly about the effect gas prices have on the economy. Consumers aged 18-34 are significantly more likely than consumers over 65 to agree that lower gas prices will have a large effect on the economy (56 percent vs. 33 percent). Urban consumers also are more likely to say low gas prices have a strong effect on the economy vs. rural consumers (55 percent to 46 percent).
With that being said, consumers are concerned about some of the possible negative consequences of a sustained period of lower gas prices. Nearly three in four consumers believe lower oil prices can hurt investment portfolios, but support in this belief is soft, with only one in five consumers (22 percent) strongly expressing concern, the surveys found.
Consumers also expressed some concern about the effect lower gas prices could have on the environment. A slim majority (56 percent) say lower petroleum prices could reduce motivation to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles.
They were a little more concerned about how a decrease in fuel-efficient vehicles could affect the economy, with nearly four in five (78 percent) expressing concern, NACS explained.
"It is estimated that lower gas prices led to an estimated $550 in savings per household in 2015. As gas prices continue to stay low into 2016, it is clear that some segments of the economy are benefiting from consumers' economic gains," Lenard said.
"Convenience stores are among the biggest winners, especially as travel remains strong, since they sell both the fuel for vehicles and the snacks and drinks for on-the-go consumers. In addition, their increase in prepared food programs position convenience stores for growth with consumers eating more meals outside of the home."
The NACS surveys were conducted online by Penn Schoen Berland; a minimum of 1,100 gas consumers nationally are surveyed each month.