The costs of consumer goods are paralleling the rising gas prices. With gas prices nationwide heading toward the $4 a gallon mark, analysts expect the pocketbook pain to get worse.
“Fuel prices hit retail food prices in two ways, in processing and transportation,” said Ricky Volpe, a research economist with the USDA Economic Research Service. “It’s really all along the whole food supply chain, but some commodities certainly get hit harder than others.”
The Consumer Price Index shows the correlation of rising gas prices to consumer goods. Food prices increased by 4.4 percent from January 2011 to January 2012, and apparel prices by 4.7 percent. In that same period, gas prices rose by 9.7 percent, reaching a high of $3.98 per gallon May 5. The average was $3.76 as of Wednesday.
The recent string of gas price increases – 39 consecutive days – was the longest since prices increased for 44 days beginning March 24 of last year.
“I definitely think that we’re going to see $4 a gallon this year,” said AAA spokeswoman Jessica Brady. “I think it would probably be some time in April that we’ll see that happen.”
Augusta might not experience $4 gas as early as some other metro markets, but the prices could reach that mark by late April or early May, she said. Regular gas in the Augusta-Aiken area was averaging $3.63 per gallon as of Thursday.
The lone bright spot for consumers is that food inflation is unlikely to approach 2007-08 levels, according to the USDA Economic Research Service. Food prices rose by 4 percent in 2007 and 5.5 percent in 2008. During that period, gas prices reached an all-time high at $4.14 a gallon in July 2008.
For this year, the USDA research service predicts an annual change of 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent.
The price of gas is built into the price of almost everything consumers purchase, said Dr. Jeff M. Humphreys, the director of the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia. He said high gas prices tend to hit Georgia harder than the nation as a whole because of several factors.
In addition to not having any fuel production or refineries, Georgia has a large distribution industry, a gas-intensive type of economic activity. The state’s distribution industry, including trucking firms, shipping companies and logistics centers, is larger than expected for the size of the economy, Humphreys said.
Higher gas prices also affect large products that need to be moved long distances. Both the buyer and seller are affected, said Bill Hauk, the assistant professor of economics at the University of South Carolina’s Moore School of Business.
Businesses that operate on a small profit margin, such as grocery stores, are impacted by anything that affects costs. Delivery companies and taxi companies are also hit because they rely heavily on transportation, Hauk said.
“Until a certain point, these businesses eat up their margins,” said Emin Hajiyev, the assistant director of the Economic Forecasting Center at Georgia State University. “But at some point when the price of oil or gasoline becomes exuberantly high, they will have to pass on those costs to consumers.”
There are several factors contributing to the increase in gas prices, Brady said. The primary cause is escalating tension with Iran. The nation has threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, which transports one-fifth of the world’s oil supply.
This is also the time of year when refineries shut down to switch from winter to summer blend fuel and consumers “see prices increase into the summer travel season,” she said.
Positive economic news in the U.S. or Europe tends to push oil prices higher. It causes speculation that demand will increase, she said.
“At the same time, you have these increased gas prices eating into consumers’ disposable income,” she said.
That will force most people to make sacrifices in their discretionary spending, Hajiyev said.
When gas hits $4 a gallon, Augusta resident Jennifer Flores said she’s going to have cut back on visits to her mother’s house in Lincolnton, grocery spending and recreational activities.
“I smoke cigarettes. They’re going to jack those up, so quitting will be an option,” she said. “No going out to eat or fun stuff because you’ve got to pay $10 just to get across town. That’s crazy.”