ACAPMA’s Monitor of Fuel Consumer Attitudes

Every two years, the Australasian Convenience and Petroleum Marketers Association (ACAPMA) undertakes research into consumer attitudes towards the petrol-convenience industry in Australia. This periodic research is not a survey of actual shopping behaviours, but rather, is a survey of consumer attitudes towards service stations with a specific focus on the factors that underpin their fuel purchase decisions.

“As occurred with the inaugural 2015 Monitor (and subsequent 2017 Monitor), the 2019 research was undertaken by Survey Matters at ‘arm’s length’ from the fuel industry in an effort to capture candid consumer opinions about the operation of the national petrol convenience industry”, said ACAPMA CEO Mark McKenzie.

The research comprises both quantitative (i.e. online questionnaire) and qualitative (i.e. online focus groups) elements to allow exploration of the underlying factors (i.e. second tier issues) that were contributing to observed fuel consumer attitudes and behaviours.

The quantitative research sample comprised a geographical representative cross-section of 1000 Australian petrol-convenience consumers which was subsequently grouped according to ‘inner city”, “outer suburban”, and “regional/rural” consumers. The same grouping was utilised for analysis of the qualitative responses derived from the online focus group work.

Fuel purchase attitudes and behaviours

Overall, the 2019 Monitor found that consumers are visiting the outlet more frequently and, as observed in the 2017 Monitor, most consumers appear loyal to one of a few service stations. Eighty seven percent (87%) of consumers surveyed indicated that they purchase fuel from the same or one of a select few service stations.

Loyalty to a single service station increased from 17% of consumers in 2017 to 26% in 2019”.

Price and location continue to be the main reasons for retailer loyalty. While the 2017 Monitor of Fuel Consumer Attitudes found that the importance of price in the fuel purchase decision was diminishing, this fall has been reversed in 2019 with 56% of consumers indicating that price is the most important driver of where to purchase fuel – up from 48% in 2017.

“The finding that 56% of fuel consumers nominated price as the most important factor in service station choice is an interesting one when compared with the finding that 87% of consumers said they purchase fuel from the same service station (or small grouping of the same service stations) and that loyalty to a single service station increased above 2017 levels – possibly highlighting a contradiction between what consumers say they do and what they actually do when it comes to purchasing fuel”, said Mark.

In a possible further explanation of the increasing focus on price in the 2019 data, one in two respondents believe they are spending more on fuel that they were two years ago. While some consumers attribute the increase in their weekly fuel expenditure to changing travel habits, the majority of respondents (69%) believed that the increase in weekly fuel expenditure is being driven by higher fuel prices.

“Interestingly, a comparison of the national average retail prices during the time of the 2019 survey reveals that these prices were actually lower than they were during the time of the 2017 survey – again posing the question of whether consumer price perceptions are impacted by factors other than the price they actually paid at the pump”, said Mark.

More than seven in ten consumers who live in suburban, regional and rural areas believe they are spending more on fuel due to higher prices. In contrast, only 48% of consumers in inner city areas believe this to be the reason their expenditure on fuel has increased – when compared to other consumers, inner-city residents are significantly more likely to cite changing travel habits (25%) and increased family travel (14%) as reasons why they are spending more on fuel than they were two years ago

To understand how consumers manage fuel costs, the research continued to track how consumers shop for fuel with the 2019 results suggesting that supermarket fuel discount vouchers are losing traction amongst consumers. Although a dominant theme in the 2015 and 2017 Monitors, when 42% and 30% of consumers respectively indicated they use supermarket fuel discount vouchers, only 24% of consumers indicated they use fuel discount vouchers to ensure they are getting the best price for fuel.

Further, and in stark contrast to prior studies, discount vouchers were rarely mentioned in focus groups and interviews.

Conversely, use of fuel price apps is increasing. Up from only 8% in 2017, 19% of fuel consumers now indicate that they use fuel price apps to find the best price (this figure increases to 24% for consumers under 30 years of age).

Despite the 2019 Monitor highlighting an increasing consumer focus on price, fuel costs ranked only fourth amongst consumers’ in terms of being their most concerning household expenditures – well behind electricity costs (40%), food (17%) and medical costs (15%).

“In fact, the 2019 Monitor revealed that only 13% of consumers rate “fuel costs” as their most concerning expense behind which suggests that the often-frenzied commentary about the impact of fuel prices on the national economy is not in line with actual consumer attitudes”, said Mark.

Convenience purchase behaviours

The 2019 Monitor suggests that there has been little change in the proportion of consumers who make convenience purchases at service stations when they buy fuel, with 82% consumers saying that they generally only purchase fuel when they visit a service station. And the proportion of consumers who use their fuel retailer for ‘convenience only’ shopping (i.e. non car owners) also remained constant at one in three.

Despite this, there appear to be ‘pockets’ of consumers who are increasingly using the convenience store at their local fuel retailer. These consumers are generally young and live in the inner city. Compared to the national average of 18% of all service station consumers, 33% of consumers in the inner city also purchase convenience items with their fuel.

“This is an important finding as it suggests that time poor inner-city consumers are increasingly using service stations for top-up purchases while those in out suburban and regional rural areas are continuing to use their service stations in the traditional manner”, said Mark

Amongst consumers who do buy ‘more than fuel’ there is also a propensity to make more frequent, planned purchases. Eight in ten (80%) of convenience purchases are planned rather than impulse buys with focus group participants suggesting the reason is convenience as “it saves me a trip to a different store”.

More than just fuel?

With many fuel retailers investing in significant upgrades to facilities and convenience stores expanding the range of products on offer, the 2019 Monitor was expanded to investigate consumers attitudes towards these changes and to the role of fuel retailers in the convenience sector.

Designed to provide retailers with insight into the consumers and locations most attracted to the convenience offer, the 2019 Monitor sought to understand how fuel retailers can remain relevant to today’s consumer, and tested ideas about new products and services that might provide value.

The results of the 2019 Monitor revealed that support for an expanded range of items has increased since 2017 – with the greatest change being to the proportion of consumers who would consider buying grocery products such as milk, bread and toiletries. The proportion of consumer who said they would consider buying these groceries from their retailer increased three-fold when compared with the 2017 Monitor – up from just 14% in 2017 to 42% in 2019.

Overall, the research highlights that while most consumers only make occasional convenience purchases, young, inner city consumers are increasingly using their fuel retailer for more regular convenience shopping. This group is also the most likely to see a role for an expanded convenience offer, with nearly six in ten supportive of service stations providing “more than fuel”. 

So, the question remains, is whether this openness to ‘more than fuel’ in inner city areas a function of location, lifestyle or income? Or, is it that consumer exposure to a new ‘breed’ of fuel retailers providing an expanded and enhanced convenience offer has changed the attitudes and behaviours of traditional inner-city service station customers?

“The findings of the 2019 Monitor certainly provide some food for thought in respect of the design and location of expanded convenience offerings in the Australian petrol-convenience market”, concluded Mark

Further information

A full copy of the 2019 Monitor of Fuel Consumer Attitudes can be downloaded at: https://acapmag.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/ACAPMA-2019-National-Monitor-of-Fuel-Consumer-Attitudes-V1.0.pdf.

Further inquiries about the 2019 Monitor, or the previous 2017 Monitor and 2015 Monitor can be made by contacting the ACAPMA Secretariat on 1300 160 270 or emailing communications@acapma.com.au