A rise in gasoline price is usually offset by a cutback in eating out and a trade down to more affordable grocery chains, according to Ken Perkins, president of research firm Retail Metrics. Analysts think such chains as Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and Chili’s Grill & Bar will be among the first to take a hit from high gasoline prices as Americans buy more affordable food from chains such as McDonald’s.

But even some fast-food chains can get hit when their core users, aged 18-30, do not have a lot of extra cash, said restaurant consultant Malcolm Knapp, whose Knapp-Track monthly sales and guest count data is an industry benchmark.  “They either put fuel in their tank or fuel in their stomach,” Knapp said, adding that McDonald’s has a diversified customer base that insulates it more than others.

People will also be shopping more at discount stores rather than traditional grocers such as Kroger and Safeway, once gasoline hits $4, said Craig Johnson, president of retail consulting firm Customer Growth Partners.  Warehouse clubs such as Costco Wholesale Corp and Wal-Mart Stores’ Sam’s Club, will also likely be winners because they sell gasoline to members at a discount and are also good places to stock up in one trip.  Safeway blamed high fuel prices for a drop in quarterly profit last week as did fruit and vegetable distributor Fresh Del Monte Produce.

U.S. gas prices have jumped 8.8 percent since the start of this year, according to the Energy Information Agency, topping an average of $3.65 a gallon in the week ending February 22.  This was a record for this time of the year, when prices are usually on the low side because of slow seasonal demand.  However, an improving economy and warm weather are expected to offset some of the impact of high gas prices, Perkins said.  “Better labor market reports should translate into better consumer confidence readings and some modest increased spending. Retailers are also up against a much easier year-over-year growth comparison than they were in the fourth quarter,” Perkins said.

 

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