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Are gas prices hurting retailers? And other fuel-cost angles

If you’ve done your share of gasoline price stories as the per-pump cost has marched upward, you may be wondering how to add a fresh twist to this perennial assignment.

I don’t have any miracle suggestions for reporters on gas-price patrol but have taken note of a few interesting and off-the-beaten-path angles.   And with prices approaching the $4 milestone — I actually saw quite a few $3.99 marquees in Metro Detroit yesterday, and gas futures are at their highest levels since 2008 — readers are definitely going to continue following the story.

Breakdown of a Gallon of GasBy some accounts, $5-a-gallon gas has been spotted in pricey locales like New York, Alaska, California and Hawaii, according to this L.A. Times blog. Note the creative way the blogger used GasBuddy.com information to come up with a new story angle.  You could do the same for your state or region.

Other angles making news:

Smaller cars. Ford Motor Co. just posted its best first-quarter profit since 1998 on the strength of its fuel-efficient line-up.  With all automakers due to report April sales on Monday, now is a good time to check in with area dealers about sales trends.  Are they selling more gas-sippers?  And are consumer incentives waning as fuel prices drive demand?

Retail ripples. CNN has been reporting this week that Wal-Mart says its shoppers are running out of money sooner in the month due to high gasoline costs.  Late-month purchases are waning, the discount giant says.  I’m not sure I buy that 100 percent but it’s worth some calls to local retailers and restaurants to see if paycheck-to-paycheck patrons are indeed burning through their cash at a faster clip; if local month-end sales are shriveling, how does that effect workers and vendors as well as merchants?

Gas Prices School BusFuel surcharges. As this New York Times article points out, shipping companies are mulling higher fuel surcharges, which of course will ripple out to consumer prices.  I’ve noticed similar discussions on the Sirius satellite radio trucker network (yes, I listen to it) and on trucking industry websites.  It would be interesting to analyze one load of your region’s main products, from cars to cotton, to determine what every 10-cent hike in the cost of a gallon of fuel does to expenses and to profits for drivers, freight companies and the seller.  Talk with independent owner operators as well as shippers and industry consultants.

Workplace. This interesting release from the consulting firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas says that employers aren’t expected to help workers with commuting costs this time around.  During the 2008 spike, employers allowed more telecommuting or even handed out fuel subsidies, the firm says — but this year they aren’t likely to be quite so eager to retain workers, with so many unemployed replacements available, and they aren’t likely to invest dollars that could be helping fund a corporate recovery into helping workers.   Check to see if this holds true in your market and if any grass-roots commuting strategies are being sponsored by area employers.

Personal finance. This ABC News video illustrates some desperate measures some consumers are taking to save on gas.  You can find area commuters using less extreme tactics — like ride-sharing, car-pooling, scooter/motorcycle use, etc. — to save on daily fuel costs.

Another personal finance angle is the “it could be worse” story reminding readers what consumers overseas pay for petrol — like $6.48 a gallon in The Netherlands, according to a CNN Money article.  And of course the “you pay more per gallon for these consumables” story — like a $5 bottle of nail polish equaling $640 per gallon, or that $2, 10 oz. can of soup working out to about $35.60 to the gallon.  This won’t ease pump pain but it will help panicked consumers put things in perspective.