Fuel Hikes Not Stalling Sales

NEW YORK — Gas prices may be surging toward the $4 mark across the country, but retailers are shrugging off the impact.

After seeing a sales boost from early spring weather, footwear storeowners said they are optimistic that consumers will continue to shop, despite paying higher prices at the pump.

“We have some positive momentum going,” said Chris Bentvelzen, owner of Shoes-n-Feet in San Francisco and Belmont, Calif.

Although gas prices across the state have already topped $4 a gallon, Bentvelzen said his sales are up double digits over last year. Opting not to mark down products, the retailer said he has driven business by creating a quality experience for shoppers who are willing to pay for gas, tolls and parking.

“It doesn’t matter if gas is $2 a gallon or $20 a gallon, service is No. 1, and that’s what keeps us afloat and keeps us going,” Bentvelzen said.

Bruce Simon, owner of Simon’s Shoes in Henderson, Ky., isn’t worried, either. “There’s money out there,” he said. “It may affect some, but if people want to shop, they’re going to shop.”

Simon added that a very mild winter and an early spring helped move sandals by Merrell and Chaco ahead of time this year. For his business, where most consumers come from within a 60-mile radius, pushing more than one item has been a key part of the sales strategy.

“If someone is driving 60 or 70 miles to come to your store, hopefully they’re not coming just to buy one pair of shoes or to look in the windows,” Simon said. “With gas prices higher, you have to take advantage of those customers who drive out.”

In Wilmington, Del., Hansel & Gretel co-owner Carol Harvey predicted that fuel increases could actually benefit her business.

“Higher gas prices might encourage more people to shop locally,” she said. “I’m not as worried.”

But not all retailers are without some anxiety. Brown’s Shoe Center owner Randy Brown said gas prices may affect the operations of his seven locations throughout Missouri and Illinois.

“We have several vehicles on the road used by staff visiting the stores and an inventory truck used to relay products,” Brown said. “We haven’t studied to what extent gas prices might negatively impact our expenses, but it is a growing concern.”

Steve Silver, owner of Cleveland-based Next, is hoping that the higher prices at the pump won’t cut into his consumer base’s disposable income.

“When your customer is a young kid with a limited amount of spending money, gas prices definitely dip into that,” he said.

The Next owner is predicting business will slow down in the coming months, and he plans to offer more promotions depending on how sales go. Silver also added that the warm weather put a strain on sales of winter boots, which will need to be cleared out.

But, according to Alison Paul, vice chairman of U.S. retail for Deloitte, the mild winter may have put consumers in a better position to deal with a surge in gas prices.

“Warm weather actually helped consumers’ pocketbooks, whether it was saving some money on heating oil or not buying a pair of winter boots or a heavy coat,” Paul said. “That will help them ride out this gas price increase.”

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s latest report, the average price per gallon of regular gasoline is expected to be $3.95 through September.

However, Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group, said shoppers are better equipped to deal with high prices than in years past, so any changes to spending patterns will not be as dramatic as during the recession.

“Gas prices may cause the consumer to rethink spending, but when the industry is still in recovery mode, gas prices that would normally shock the majority of consumers will not [this year],” Cohen said.

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