Why Are Shoppers So Glum About Spending?

As we recently reported in our April BIG Executive Briefing, two in five consumers (39.8%) say they plan to decrease overall spending over the next three months…that was April’s top financial priority, dethroning the usual intent to pay down debt (34.7% in Apr-12).

Forty percent actively attempting to curtail their expenditures is a big number. So big, in fact, that we’ve only approached this figure three times in the past SEVEN years. Researching this a bit further, it was pretty easy to tie a piece of history to each of the three previous peaks: Hurricane Katrina, the Summer ’08 Record High Gas Prices, and Holiday ’08 (see chart below, but don’t strain your brain…I’ll break it down in a second). Because two of these three events had at least a little something to do with pump prices, I added in the average price per gallon of gas during the week of our survey collection, as reported by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Plans to Decrease Overall Spending v. Average Price Per Gallon of Gas

Now, let’s break this down historically:

Hurricane Katrina: When this natural disaster slammed into the Gulf states in Aug-05, we were all affected nationwide. New Orleans, et al were literally adrift, slow response times left victims with prolonged suffering [*coughs* FEMA], and price per gallon of gas soared to $3 [ah, $3/gal…how I miss thee]. By September, consumers were responding with their spending sentiment: 40.0% were planning to decrease overall expenditures. As you can see in the chart though, as pump prices edged back downward, consumers backed off this conservative fiscal mantra.

Summer ’08 Gas Price Highs: According to the AAA Daily Fuel Gauge Report, pump prices hit an all-time high on July 17, 2008, at $4.114/gal. By now we were also in the belly of the recession, and 39.2% of consumers reacted with plans for spending cutbacks. And though gas prices bottomed-out by Holiday 2008, consumer spending plans didn’t respond in kind #thankyoubankfailures

Holiday ’08: It’s safe to say that the Holiday 2008 shopping season was a disaster. The severe spending cutbacks that materialized with shoppers were not anticipated by retailers, who were left deeply discounting the massive amounts left on their store shelves pre- and post-holiday. More than two in five consumers (42.9%) rang in New Year 2009 with resolutions to decrease overall spending, a record high. So – obviously – it’s not always gas prices that ignite spending cutbacks among consumers…sometimes, you can blame it on a recession.

Furthering the point that pump prices aren’t always that culprit, when the cost of fueling up topped off at over $4/gal last May, drivers didn’t have a fiscal knee-jerk reaction. While at the time consumers were bracing for a $4.25/gal price by Memorial Day ’11, that never materialized and plans to decrease overall spending continued to fluctuate in a relatively [new] “normal” 30% to 35% range.

So what’s different this year? Average gas prices have crossed that $4/gal threshold again, and 39.8% have responded with plans to cut back. Have consumers just had enough? Are they tired of dealing with pump prices in addition to the inflating price tags on apparel, food, and other household items? Are they not willing to tap into their hard-earned savings to cover the additional costs of fueling up? Are they hedging on a response [or lack thereof] from Capitol Hill?

At any rate I think it’s safe to say that if gas prices don’t cool off as summer heats up, retailers might be in for a spending drought.

For more information on this data, please contact BIGinsight™.

Like the timeline infused with BIG data? Be sure to sign up for complimentary access to our Vital Signs InsightCenter™, an advanced platform for the visualization and delivery of insights and answers on how consumers in the U.S. are reacting to key economic events. It illustrates how consumers feel about the economy, changes they make in their lives in reaction to the economic situation, and how their personal financial and spending plans are affected by key events. It goes beyond traditional point-in-time data reports to trended insights in one easy-to-use, decision-ready format.

Source: BIGinsight™ Monthly Consumer Survey – APR-12 (N = 8724, 4/3 – 4/10/12)

© 2012, Prosper®

BIGinsight™ is a trademark of Prosper Business Development Corp.

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