You have to go back to the depths of the Great Recession to find gasoline prices as low as they are today; but because the economy is at least in marginally better shape now than it was back then, we're able to appreciate the savings at the pump all the more.
As fuel savings shovel more money into our pockets, we're giving the economy a bigger boost. Economists say for every penny per gallon drop in fuel costs, the U.S. gets a $1 billion stimulus injection. As fast as we're saving it, though, we're spending it. Consumers are expected to spend two-thirds of the fuel savings, and it's estimated that lower gas prices were at least partially responsible for the better than 4% jump in retail sales this past Christmas.
Yet it's not good news for all retailers. Dollar-store chains, for example, find that some of the customers they won during a rising-price environment migrate back to the original channels they shopped in beforehand. But other channels stand to do well in this low energy cost environment, and one of the best positioned markets could be as close as your neighborhood convenience store.
A convenient opportunity
With a wide array of groceries, fresh and prepared foods, and in many cases gasoline too, the c-store format is experiencing a protracted period of growth as they become the go-to stores for consumers. Wells Fargo analysts found every single convenience store it surveyed credited lower gas prices as the reason behind higher foot traffic and sales in the fourth quarter last year.
There are over 151,000 convenience stores in the U.S., and according to the National Association of Convenience Stores, c-store owners in the U.S. -- two-thirds of which are individuals operating 10 or fewer stores -- typically only make $0.02 or $0.03 profit per gallon of gas sold. These owners are relying instead upon in-store purchases of beer, soda, and cigarettes to stay open.
Last year the market researchers at Technomic said convenience stores were able to steal customers away from fast-food chains like McDonald's and Burger King by bolstering their fresh food options. In a survey of 4,000 c-store shoppers, 26% skipped going to their local burger joint because they already picked up something to eat at their local 7-Eleven or Wawa.
And you won't see c-stores bemoaning CVS Health's (NYSE:CVS) decision to stop selling tobacco products last year. The pharmacy operator admitted most of its customers who used to buy cigarettes from it turned to convenience stores and gas stations for their purchases. It was only able to make up the lost revenue by the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
Now that low gas prices have drivers putting the pedal to the metal more often, the c-stores are seeing a greater uptick in business as the Wells Fargo survey indicates.
Refining your choices
Alimentation Couche-Tard (OTC:ANCTF), for example, operates the Circle K chain and is one of the largest c-store operators in North America, second only to 7-Eleven. It saw fiscal year 2015 second quarter net earnings jump 25% last November due to strong fuel margins and a 2.1% increase in U.S. same-store road transportation fuel volumes. And back then, AAA said the average price of gas was $2.81 per gallon, almost $0.60 per gallon more than current prices.
Marathon Petroleum (NYSE:MPC) runs 2,750 c-stores in 22 states through its Speedway subsidiary, making it the largest company-owned convenience store chain in the U.S. by revenue. Its fourth quarter earnings report issued earlier this month showed net earnings rising 27% from the year ago period to $798 million, or $2.86 per share, while total income from operations, which includes its refinery business, as well as Speedway and its pipelines, was up 25% year over year.
In addition to its convenience stores, Marathon is also is fourth-largest refiner in the U.S. with crude oil refining capacity of approximately 1.7 million barrels per day in its seven-refinery system.
That gives it two ways to profit from low gas prices. In addition to its c-stores, its refineries can profit by selling products that are insulated from oil price fluctuations, like asphalt, as well as having the ability to export their fuels to international markets that are willing to pay up. Sure, falling crude oil prices can pressure refinery margins, but they can make it up in volumes of refined products sold as people drive more.
Giving it the gas
When consumption is the driving force in the economy -- and consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of our GDP -- we're going to see lower fuel prices benefiting a broad swath of the market.
Smart investors will remember oil and gas prices have a way of confounding the experts, so savvy investors won't fill up their tank (or portfolio) with any one sector of the market. But we're at that happy intersection where discounted gas meets a marginally improved economy, giving discerning investors a number of paths to take on the road to profit.