Uncle Sam's Eyes in the Aisles
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
Caren Gaffney moves from store to store, meticulously combing the aisles and taking down prices.
A head of Boston lettuce. A bottle of Advil. Car inspection. Diamond bracelet. Eyeglasses. A 50-foot black TV cable. Washing machine.
It's an eclectic shopping list that comes from her employer, the U.S. government.
The items that she prices -- and thousands of others -- are reflected in the government's most closely watched inflation barometer. The consumer price index measures the prices shoppers pay for a market basket of goods and services.
Consumer prices edged up 0.2 percent in June, half the amount of May's increase. But over the first six months of this year, prices rose at an annual rate of 4.7 percent, led by soaring energy costs.
Gaffney is one of about 450 people who check prices on 96,000 items from thousands of merchants for the monthly reports assembled by the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"We price everything from condoms to cremations," says Katie Gollannek, branch chief in the bureau's division of price programs.
During busy times, Gaffney, an economic assistant who works part time, has visited about 45 stores in a 10-day period to get prices on 150 items.
In her year on the job, she has perfected a plan for plucking prices: When she enters a shop, "I work from right to left. It makes it quicker," Gaffney explains. "What you want to do is set up your work so it is efficient."
At one stop -- a grocery store in the Washington suburbs -- Gaffney's checks the price on five items:
· A pound package of the store-brand all-beef franks, $2.99.