Gasoline prices in South Carolina are inching down toward the $3-a-gallon mark and could dip below it in the coming months, analysts say.
Gas prices in Beaufort County are nearing the $3 mark, according to GasBuddy.com, with the Shell station at 1350 Fording Island Road posting the lowest price per gallon in the area, at $3.05 Monday morning.
Overall, gas prices per gallon ranged from $3.18 to $3.48 in Beaufort, $3.05 to $3.29 in Bluffton and $3.14 to $3.23 on Hilton Head Island.
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"For a lot of people, that's a threshold," AAA Carolinas spokeswoman Angela Daley said of the $3-a-gallon price. "It's psychological. They really feel like they're saving money."
Compared to last year, they are.
The average for a gallon of gas a year ago Monday was $3.57, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Report. Monday's lower prices represented a savings of 44 cents a gallon, on average. If those savings hold up, the average family with two cars could save more than $130 between now and Christmas, putting a couple more presents under the tree.
Weather is a big reason prices are so much cheaper this year. Gas prices usually fall after Labor Day when the traditional summer travel season ends, Daley said. But, last year, Hurricane Isaac slammed into the Gulf Coast, disrupting oil flow. This year, there have been no major hurricanes.
"We're not having any major issues with distribution or supply," Daley said.
Another factor that is slowing demand is the turnover in the auto market, said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst with gasbuddy.com. Auto sales are on the rise and, as consumers buy newer models, they generally are getting better gas mileage, he said.
The average price of a gallon of gas in South Carolina held steady at $3.28 from Aug. 30 to Sept. 6 and has dropped an average of half a cent to 1 cent every day since then, according to AAA Carolinas. The last time the average was below $3 a gallon in the state was July 7, 2012.
Still, consumers should be cautious when they pull into a station. The advertised price sometimes is for "cash only." And consumers not paying cash could pay significantly more. For example, Sav-a-ton on Wilson Boulevard at Interstate 20 in Blythewood was selling gas for $3 a gallon for cash Monday afternoon but $3.09 for other forms of payment.
A hurricane or unrest in the oil-rich Middle East still could cause prices to rise before the end of the year, Daley said. She said she expects prices to flatten out in the coming weeks.
But some stations in South Carolina, including the Rock Hill area, already are seeing gas below $3 a gallon. And analyst Kloza said he expects gas to go as low as $2.75 to $2.85 in the state before the end of the year.
But, he added, "Not for everybody."
Instead, Kloza expects the lowest prices to be limited to some competitive markets, where gas stations engage in price wars to bring consumers inside to buy convenience items.