March 16, 2010

Poll: Consumer confidence in Maine continues to erode

DAVID SHARP

— By

The Associated Press

Maine consumer confidence has tumbled, with a near doubling of the percentage of Mainers who say they're worse off now than they were a year ago, according to a new poll.

Released a day after Maine's average gas price topped $4 per gallon, the Market Decisions quarterly survey found that 55 percent of respondents believe they're worse off, compared with 30 percent in the same survey a year ago and 43 percent in the last survey released March 11. Only 18 percent said they're better off.

The survey underscored the decline in consumer confidence by noting that 73 percent anticipate difficult times ahead for businesses in Maine, and 57 percent say it's a bad time for a major purchase. Furthermore, 68 percent expect the difficulties to continue for the next five years.

The survey reflects the most dismal consumer confidence numbers since 2000, when Portland-based Market Decisions adopted its current format for questions on the economy.

''Energy prices are affecting people's perception of the economy and their spending habits,'' said Curtis Mildner, president and senior consultant. ''Most people are saying now is a bad time to make a major purchase. That's ominous for the economy.''

The survey came at a time of record energy costs. Retail heating oil prices have risen to more than $4.50 a gallon, nearly double what they were last year at this time. And gasoline prices, which topped $4 before Memorial Day in some locations in Maine, had reached a statewide average of $4 on Wednesday, according to AAA.

Just last week, Katahdin Paper LLC announced it would close its Millinocket mill because of high energy costs. The mill relies almost solely on heating oil.

Despite the worrisome trend, the latest forecast by the New England Economic Partnership suggested Maine will see a mild and short recession, with a loss of fewer than 2,000 jobs.

But Mildner said some forecasts showing a brief recession are out of sync with the perception of most Mainers, based on the responses to his survey.

''Economic forecasts have said this is going to be a two-quarter recession. If it's driven by consumer confidence, then it's going to last longer,'' he said.

The telephone poll was based on responses from 404 randomly selected Mainers between April 16 and May 8. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

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