Dynamist Blog

Price Check, Aisle 3

This A.P. feature profiles a price checker for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, giving just a few hints of the difficult issues involved.

She enters the price for each item into her computer. In the case of the bologna, Gaffney is perplexed. She took down the price as $2.49. But her computer tells her that on her last visit the price was $1.99. After some investigating, Gaffney realizes she grabbed the wrong item this time -- the higher-priced all-beef light bologna.

The price of Boston lettuce had increased from $1.69 on Gaffney's last visit. She hunts down one of the store's produce workers to find out why, but he does not have any insights.

Stores let Gaffney and others collect price information on a confidential basis.

What are some of the more challenging tasks for the price hunters? They include the price for a pair of eyeglasses, for leasing or repairing a car, or for anything related to health -- because of all the details involved. Clothing can be complicated, too.

"If it is a seasonal item, most likely it is going to be gone the next time you go there. You got to look all over for it and make sure you got it," Gaffney says.

If the store is out of the item, Gaffney has the tedious and often time-consuming task of finding a substitute product that is as close to the original as possible.

For instance, Gaffney might be forced to find a substitute for a woman's blouse with the following specifications: sleeveless, 85 percent cotton, 15 percent rayon. Made in Malaysia for a national brand. Does it have any special features, such as appliques, embroidery or beadwork? What's the hip length?

Determining the inflation rate requires a lot more subjective judgments than the precise numbers you see in the paper might suggest. I discussed some of the complexities, especially regarding quality improvements, in this NYT column and, more recently, in this Forbes column.

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