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AAPEX Show, Day One: High gas prices changed consumer behavior

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Gas prices have dropped well below $3 a gallon. However, drivers don't appear to be in a hurry to go back to their pre-$3-a-gallon behaviors, according to a new survey from The NPD Group Inc.

David Portalatin, director of industry analysis for NPD's automotive division, shared results from the "2009 Aftermarket Outlook Survey" at the AAPEX (Automotive Aftermarket Parts Exposition) show, held during Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week in Las Vegas, Nev.

He said 2008 has been "a year of unprecedented change in the way consumers behave." Comparatively, it's the most significant behavioral change in 25 years.

With gas prices down, consumers are likely to reverse the short-term driving pattern changes they made when gas prices were high, he said. But it's unlikely that the consumers who made more permanent changes, like changing jobs to work closer to home, will go back to their previous driving behaviors.

Consumer concerns about the economy, and the fact that many believe gas prices will soon go up again, also impacts their driving behaviors.

The NPD survey of 1,363 consumers captured the temporary/short-term changes consumers made to cope with high gas prices. In addition to driving less miles, consumers changed their commuting methods (e.g., carpooled), shopping patterns (e.g., reducing or consolidating shopping trips), and took action to increase fuel efficiency (e.g., avoided idling).

Consumers also changed their approach to auto maintenance as it relates to fuel efficiency:

* more than half of the respondents said they checked the tire pressure;

* 37% changed the air filter; and

* 23% replaced the fuel filter.

As for purchasing a new vehicle, 61% of those surveyed said they are not planning to purchase a new or used vehicle in 2009. Of those consumers who said they were going to purchase a new or used vehicle.

"When gas prices were high, consumers made conscious changes in all areas of their lives that involved a car," said Portalatin. "I feel that today's automotive consumers are more informed about fuel efficiency and have more fuel efficient options available to them.

"Some will go back to their gas guzzling ways, but many have had their consciousness raised regarding fuel efficiency."

There are short-term opportunities for aftermarket service providers to take advantage of these changes in behavior, he said. As consumers hold off buying new cars, they need to maintain their current vehicles for a longer period of time. Those wanting to enhance the fuel efficiency of aging vehicles also will need to spend money.

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