On a brisk autumn morning, Caren Gaffney, a 50-something blonde with a French manicure, a Texas twang and a skeptical squint in her eyes, crouches down to inspect the underbelly of a gas pump in rural Virginia.
“Let me make sure I get this right,” Gaffney says, putting on her glasses as she peppers the manager with questions. “Okay, are there special prices on certain days? Do you pay more or less if you used a credit card? What about points from the store — can you count those toward gas? Is this minimum octane? Regular or unleaded?”
She enters all the information into the computer tablet wobbling in her arms.
Gaffney is a roving, often stealthy price checker with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, one of 428 “economic assistants,” or EAs, who fan out across every state, seven days a week, to record the prices of everything from guitars to guns, cribs to cremations, farmers-market apples to food-truck cupcakes.
It is a labor-intensive task, one that could seem like an anachronism in a high-tech age when anyone with a smartphone can scan a bar code and call up lists of products, prices and sales locations. And as the bureau looks for ways to modernize and go digital, this century-old job could be in jeopardy.
Gaffney is on the front lines of collecting confidential data that are ultimately compiled for some of the nation’s most important economic measures, including the consumer price index (CPI). The CPI affects income tax rates, Social Security benefits, school lunches and food stamps. Landlords, labor unions and lawyers often use the CPI to determine rent hikes, wage increases and the value of divorce settlements.
The prices she records also help inform some of the government’s most pressing economic debates, such as the Federal Reserve’s current discussions over whether its efforts to stimulate the economy are doing too much — or too little — to spur inflation.
On this recent day, Gaffney will be on the road for nearly eight hours in her beat-up 2003 Honda Pilot, driving across vast stretches of Virginia, from county to county, on a mission to hunt down prices of three American staples: gas, sugar and beer.
As Gaffney demonstrates at stop after stop, there’s more to price checking than tallying up numbers.
“A good EA is face to face with the product, is picking things up, is looking at every label,” she says. “The tiniest mistake can throw off the data. You have to be on your feet mentally.”
To ensure the integrity of the information, price checkers have to make sure they’re comparing not just apples with apples but also, for instance, organic Fuji apples with organic Fuji apples.
The job takes charm, because Gaffney has to be able to wheedle her way into some businesses and get the managers talking. It also requires her to be demanding, even persnickety, to make sure she gets the detailed answers she needs. (She recently found herself chasing a food truck through the streets of downtown Washington to check the price of its trendy sandwiches. Was it $6 with vegetables or without? What is the difference between gluten-free organic and just gluten-free?)
And she has to keep the information secret from everyone but the government, because businesses consider their prices to be proprietary information and are promised that the names of stores and brands will be kept confidential.
“I can’t even tell my husband what I know,” she says with a giggle. “It’s not exactly the CIA, but still.”
Gaffney’s line of work dates to around World War I, when the government sought to get a handle on erratic rates of inflation.
“There was a time when price checkers collected everything on paper, put it all in a pouch, mailed back to Washington. Then we would figure out price differences with an old-
fashioned adding machine,” says John Layng, assistant commissioner for consumer prices at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “So times change, and we are always looking to improve.”
The bureau is exploring alternatives — for instance, having large chain stores submit data electronically to a government computer. Bureau officials have begun talking to a few companies about what they would charge to supply the information and whether the data could still be accurate and free from tampering.
But Dean Baker, an economist and the author of “Getting Prices Right: The Debate Over the Consumer Price Index,” says automating the system may be tougher than it sounds.
“While academic economists are asking, ‘Can’t retailers just send them scanned data?,’ we think, well, not totally,” says Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “It can . . . be a very complicated, detailed process, and the way it’s been collected has been working fairly well for decades. The price checkers are typically very good at what they do.”
Price checkers, for instance, must be rigorous about recognizing nuanced differences among products.
Take sugar, the second item Gaffney is stalking on her recent trip.
She bounds along the back roads and past the strip malls of central Virginia, pulling into a massive grocery store. She strides in, knowing the exact aisle she needs. “Unless they moved somethin’ on me,” she says.
Then things get complicated. There’s brown sugar, organic brown, organic white, organic granulated, powdered, baker’s, caster, coarse, liquid, organic liquid. Finally, she spots her prey: a four-pound bag of granulated sugar. She enters the details into her tablet.
Pausing in the aisle, she explains the lengths she must go to get it right.
“You have to turn the clothes inside out,” she says. “Is it woven or knit? If it’s 20 percent cotton one week and 30 percent the next, it needs to be right.”
There are 31 different varieties of some brands, along with different packaging and prices, essentially for the same item.
Italian bread crumbs?
“If I mix that up with the price of regular bread crumbs, well, that’s just wrong, and it matters,” she says.
“Let’s go have a beer,” Gaffney jokes as she pulls up outside a supermarket in Northern Virginia and heads inside.
In the chilly beer aisle, she picks up various six-packs, carefully reading every label. She finds the one she needs — “There’s a difference between a pilsner beer and a pilsner taste” — and enters the price into her computer.
Many price checkers say that shopping after doing this job gives them a headache. They know too much. But the positions are desirable; the hours are flexible, and workers aren’t stuck in cubicles.
For many years, the jobs were dominated by women who wanted part-time work while they raised children. Today, the positions remain part time, but the ranks of price checkers include men and women of various backgrounds: military veterans, former police officers, tax collectors, truck drivers and retirees from private industry, such as Gaffney, a former telecom executive.
She says that she’s proud of her work and that the human touch remains important, even in the age of high tech. She does a little work online, mostly when she’s pricing goods and services bought over the Internet.
“It’s just much more detailed with a live person,” Gaffney says. “And you have a rapport with people who reveal stuff over the course of general banter. Like someone casually mentioning coupons that aren’t on the Internet or if a product is out of stock.”
Her last, late-afternoon stop on this day is at a veterinarian’s office.
“What’s the price of 3-year-old dog’s physical exam?” Gaffney asks. “Plus the Lyme disease test? The heartworm test?”
Oh, is the visit a different price when it’s an emergency night visit, she asks after noticing some small print on a poster.
“That’s exactly right — it’s more,” the vet says. “Good question.”