Consumers are already cutting back purchases at gasoline station convenience stores as the price at the pump rises, Gulf Oil CEO Joe Petrowski told CNBC Tuesday.
"We watch closely at the 600 stores we own and operate," he said. "We’re starting to see, like in 2008, some resistance."
The number of gallons bought is down and so are purchases at Gulf's convenience stores, which could be a sign of a more general cutting back by budget-conscious consumers.
When people do buy, they get private-label rather than more expensive branded products at the station stores, he said. Things are not as bad as in 2008, but could get there.
"We can go a lot higher to what we saw in 2008, which was extraordinary. In 2008 we were selling eight gallons per pickup. Normally it’s 12. That’s a real sign of distress," he said.
Petrowski raised his previous prediction and now thinks gasoline will "go toward the $4.50 range" in the East where several refiners have been shut down, losing 50 percent of the region's refining capacity.
What’s extraordinary about that rising gas price is "demand is exceedingly weak; heating oil demand, mainly because of the [milder than usual] winter, is down 14 percent and driving is less than it was in 2005," he said.
He said 140,000 of the 165,000 gas stations in the United States are owned and operated by people owning five or fewer stations. "It really is a small business," he added. "They're much more interested in getting you inside their store" where the margins are bigger than gas alone.
"So legend has it they like to make money at the pump. The reality is they sometimes use gasoline as a loss leader to bring you inside the store," Petrowski said.