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Does cheaper gas clear the way for consumers to spend more at retail? In general, the answer is no.
That's the conclusion of a study by Wells Fargo analyst Paul Lejuez. In the last five years, there actually has been a mild positive correlation between gas prices and same-store sales among a diverse group of retailers. That means retail sales tend to fall modestly when prices at the pump decline.
Only five retailers tend to experience higher sales when gas prices fall (or lower sales when gas prices increase). Those are CarMax, Burlington Stores, Gap, Restoration Hardware, and TJX Companies, which operates discount apparel chains T.J. Maxx and Marshalls.
Of course, correlation doesn't necessarily mean causation, and it would be reckless to invest based on such findings without putting them in context. The study also looked at situations when gas prices fell by more than 10 percent in one month. In those cases, same-store sales rose by 0.85 percentage point, the study showed.
Further complicating matters, the current situation is unusual because the economy is improving while gas prices are in decline. "While it is difficult to know for sure, we believe the U.S. consumer is more likely to see a benefit this time compared to history for exactly this reason," Lejuez said.
The conclusion? "Our analysis finds little correlation in the retail group overall, but certain companies whose target customers may be more value conscious… should see some incremental tailwind if lower gas prices persist," Lejuez said. Those include Burlington Stores, Dollar General, Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Gap, Kohl's, J.C. Penney, Ross Stores, Target, TJX, and Wal-Mart.