Economists, experts, analysts, consultants, a lot of CEOs, casual observers and even my friend and CNBC regular Jan Kniffen believe lower gas prices are going to goose holiday retail sales. In what some call the “gas bonus,” this means that some $40 billion saved on fuel will end up being spent over the holidays in the nation’s retail stores. This is certainly a happy thought. On a CNBC panel the other day, Kniffen was almost giddy about it. And then when you add in a falling unemployment rate, followed by an increase in consumer confidence — at its highest level since 2007 — stock traders are already chilling the bubbly.
Once again, I find myself the naysayer. Let’s start with the gas theory. The Robin Report Chief Strategy Officer Judith Russell looked at the monthly change in gas prices and retail sales for the past eight years. And as indicated in the chart below, there is neither a significant bump up, nor down, in retail sales accompanying rising or falling gas prices. She even looked at regressions with different segments in retail, and found that there simply does not seem to be a correlation, period. In other words, the gas theory is an empty tank.
Having said that, Walmart had a slight increase in third quarter sales of .5%, for the first time since 2012, which they believe was partially due to lower gas prices. So, one may conclude that the entire discount sector will gain from the gas bonus, putting more cash in its lower-income consumers’ pockets. On the other hand, one might conclude, as I did, that Walmart is clawing back its customers whom they lost to the thousands of smaller neighborhood dollar stores during the recession when gas prices were high and low-income shoppers had a shorter ride to those local stores, thus saving fuel costs. In fact, Walmart said in its 3Q conference call that the Walmart Express strategy (smaller footprint convenient neighborhood stores) is beginning to facilitate their clawback of market share from the dollar stores.
Therefore, this hypothesis would suggest that rather than the gas bonus lifting total spending among low-income consumers across the entire discount sector, it’s simply shifting shares around within the sector.
If consumers do take their fuel savings and decide to spend them, while the discount retail sector may minimally benefit, it’s more likely they will spend more on health care and entertainment, as well as home improvement. And since income growth is flat, they could just as well decide to save the gas “bonus.” In fact, the savings rate has been ticking up.
And there was certainly no additional gas bonus spending among the mid-to-higher income consumer segments. In fact, Macy’s CFO, Karen Hoguet told analysts a week ago, “shoppers are spending more of their disposable dollars on categories we don’t sell, like cars, health care, electronics and home improvement.”
Lastly, the low overall inflation rate, even disinflation in some major merchandise categories, is allowing consumers to get more value for their money, which doesn’t result in an increase in sales, because they’re not buying more stuff per se. Consumers and particularly the growing Millennial cohort are shifting toward a “less is more” mentality, eschewing buying more stuff to seeking more experiential satisfaction out of life, which is why restaurant sales and entertainment spending are strong. And now with a strong dollar, we might see people opt to travel more often. So these dynamics, much of which has to do with a demographic and cultural shift, will also divert any part of the gas bonus that might have made its way into mainstream retailing.
The final word: dream all you want about getting your hands on a piece of the $40 billion gas bonus, but when you wake up on January 1st with a hangover, it won’t be due to the bubbly that the stock traders are currently chilling. It will be due to the fact that the dream was really a nightmare about the passing gas bonus, pun intended.