GAS, HOME AND HEARTH
by Mark Scheinbaum
American Reporter Correspondent
Boca Raton, Fla.
BOCA RATON, Fla.. April 24, 2006 -- At the risk of dating myself, the empty gas stations at 7:45 a.m. on a Monday rush hour near trendy Mizner Park offices and stores, looked like the post-nuclear war scenes from the 1950s movie "On the Beach."
At the usually popular and populous Hess station on Federal Highway near Glades Road, where unleaded regular was $3.059 per gallon, the total number of cars pumping gasoline was zero.
Across the street where the Mobil gas and convenience store posted $3.019 and hosts a popular sandwich counter had not one single car parked outside the store or the pumps, save for that of the owner.
Behind the Boca Raton Museum of Art at a rare Citgo station that still handles auto repairs and detailing, gasoline was $3.079. One lonely landscape truck, that for all I know is part of a corporate fleet account, was being fueled.
What seemed more amazing was that perhaps a dozen gas stations that had unleaded regular posted Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at $3 per gallon and higher in upscale Delray and Boynton Beach suburbs, all showed prices between $2.91 and $2.999 this morning. It was if the retailers gave each other and all of us a big wink and hoisted the one-tenth-of-a-penny-below-three-bucks sign to spare us from sticker shock.
My favorite news dealer, a convenience store which sells no gasoline, was busy as usual with lottery tickets, coffee, a U.S. Postal Service sub-station, and snack bar. No gasoline to discourage people from spending money. In a world where thousands of convenience stores are owned outright, leased or franchised by giant oil companies, drivers cutting back on gasoline purchases mean larger inventories of pickled eggs, Slim Jims, stale Hostess Sno-Balls (the pink ones that leave a color stain on your hands), and small cans of double-shot Starbucks espresso.
But the real evidence that Americans change their driving and thriving habits when gas hits $3 was evident at Florida-based Publix supermarkets Sunday. Remember, Easter is over, there was no Super Bowl, and no one is stocking up just yet for a hurricane. But the lanes were jammed and 33 people (count 'em, or actually count the little paper tickets) were waiting to be called at the deli counter.
"Attention, all Publix associates, please report to the front of the store. please report to the check-out area," the shift manager bellowed in a forceful alto voice.
And come they did, from the swinging plastic doors behind the refrigerated "reach-in" holding the jars of horse radish and garlic pickles. They came from the loading dock-cum-smoking lounge and from returning cans of soup to shelves.
'It's amazing, two o'clock on a Sunday afternoon and we're packed with people who usually are in a restaurant?" the check-out lady told me. Restaurants? Sunday? Supermarkets?
"Look," she quickly added noting stupidity added to the face of obesity, "these folks usually go out to eat every single Sunday after church. It is just a thing in these parts - Denny's, Perkins, I-Hop, whatever they've been going for years. But when the $40 a week you spend on gas becomes $80 or $120, you are not taking the family out to lunch. Now you are going shopping on your way home from church, and cooking at home. Saving big money."
I tried this theory out on my business segment of Doug Stephan's syndicated "Good Day" radio show, and sure enough callers from around the nation said that even at $2.70 and $2.90 but certainly at $3.10 per gallon, disposable income has gone more to essential gas purchases for only essential travel, and frills and fast food have taken a back seat.
Thinking about marketing or "product placement" on the macro scale, one wonders whether Kroger's, Albertsons, Winn-Dixie, Publix, Safeway, Raley's, and other supermarket chains might also be the beneficiary of people driving ten blocks to their old shopping grounds, and forgetting to drive eight miles or 18 miles to "save money" at a Super Wal-Mart or Super Target? If you spend another $12 in gasoline, plus the time and the lines, just to get $40 worth of mid-week groceries, might some folks opt for the quick trip to the non-super supermarket? Can man live on bread (and butter) alone from only a gigantic store instead of a mega-goliath store?
Finally, I noticed my rusted 1987 V-8 Caddy gets a handsome 18.4 miles to the gallon when I move up to 89 octane gasoline for a dime more per gallon, and I keep the windows opened half way with no air conditioning. With the AC cranking I lose about 3 mpg and with the el cheapo fuel and AC cranking I drop to a morbid 12.9 mpg.
All of this could lead to a textbook case of demand and supply. Let's say I'm just a contrarian, but we could see $2.35 before we see $4.00 per gallon.