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ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Although April usually marks a period when the ongoing transition to summer-blend fuel increases gas prices and reduces optimism, consumers remain optimistic about the economy, according to this month's NACS Consumer Fuels Survey, which looks at the effect of gas prices on consumer sentiment.
Gas prices rose nearly 10 cents during the past four weeks, yet nearly 44 percent of consumers remain optimistic. The same percentage of consumers expressed optimism in NACS' March survey.
In 2013, consumer optimism fell 5 percent between January and March, when gas prices peaked. This year, optimism rose from 43 percent to 44 percent since January, despite a 25-cent increase in retail gas prices during the same timeframe.
The latest NACS survey also shows strong demographic and regional variations. Fifty-four percent of consumers aged 18 to 34 are positive about the economy, and 50 percent of those in the West are optimistic, NACS noted. At the same time, consumers in the Northeast and Midwest, which saw harsh weather conditions this winter, are the least optimistic at 41 percent.
There are some areas of concern: 63 percent of consumers expect gas prices to increase over the next 30 days, marking the highest percentage expecting higher prices since July 2013. Consumers may be growing closer to changing their behavior if gas prices continue to climb.
Consumers say they would cut back on driving when gas reaches $4.05 per regular gallon, or 50 cents from what they say prices are in their area. They would drastically change their driving behavior at $4.90, or $1.35 from what prices are in their area.
The potential for changes in consumer behavior grows as these gaps narrow. This month, both gaps are 1 cent from the lowest reported in the last year, meaning that further price increases could affect consumer behavior as well as sentiment, according to the survey.
Consumers' self-reported miles per dollar decreased once more in April, falling 3.3 percent to 6.71 miles per dollar, or 15 cents per mile. NACS began tracking this metric this year to gauge how consumer perceptions about self-reported mileage and gas prices might also affect their moods.
The NACS Consumer Fuels Survey is conducted monthly in partnership with Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates LLC to measure consumer perceptions about gas prices and how they relate to broader economic conditions. For this month's survey, more than 2,000 gas customers were polled April 1-3.