- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2006

Karen Gaffney would be a formidable contestant on “The Price Is Right.”

She moves from store to store, meticulously combing the aisles and taking down prices.

A head of Boston butterhead 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 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 marketbasket of goods and services.

Consumer prices edged up 0.2 percent in June, half the size of May’s increase. But over the first six months of this year, prices are rising at an annual rate of 4.7 percent, led by soaring energy costs. That rate outpaces last year’s 3.4 percent increase in inflation, which was the highest in five years.

Ms. 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.

The price collectors do what they have to do to get the job done: crawl on floors, paw through racks, scale shelves.

During busy times, Ms. Gaffney, an economic assistant who works part time, has visited about 45 stores in a 10-day period to collect 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,” Ms. Gaffney explains. “What you want to do is set up your work so it is efficient.”

At a grocery store in the Washington suburbs, Ms. Gaffney checks the prices on five items:

• A 1-pound package of the store-brand all-beef franks, $2.99.

• A 1-pound package of Smithfield, 97 percent fat free, sliced, cooked-ham luncheon meat, $4.69.

• An 8-ounce package of Oscar Mayer light bologna (with chicken and pork, not all-beef), $1.99.

• One head of Boston butterhead lettuce, $1.99 each.

• One head of green leaf lettuce, $1.99 per pound.

She enters the price for each item into her computer. In the case of the bologna, Ms. 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, Ms. Gaffney realizes she grabbed the wrong item this time: the higher-priced all-beef light bologna.

The price of Boston butterhead lettuce had increased from $1.69 on Ms. 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 Ms. Gaffney and others collect price information on a confidential basis. Because of that condition, the Associated Press was not permitted to identify the grocery store that Ms. Gaffney visited.

Gathering the information at grocery stores generally is easy, Ms. Gaffney says.

What are some of the more challenging tasks for the price hunters? They included 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’ve got to look all over for it and make sure you got it,” Ms. Gaffney says.

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

For instance, Ms. 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?

Ms. Gaffney says she has priced all kinds of goods and services, including a hysterectomy, a cremation, tires, car repairs, expensive jewelry and liquor.

That has helped turn her into a more savvy shopper when she is off duty.

“Beware of sales,” Ms. Gaffney says. “They say it’s a sale but the sale price is really the regular price. So that sort of stuff I’m very aware of,” she says.

All of the thousands of prices collected by Ms. Gaffney and others pour into the Bureau of Labor Statistics, where they are analyzed by economist Sandra Schneider and her colleagues.

Ms. Schneider’s area of expertise includes cereal (box, bag, hot or cold); bakery goods (fresh and frozen); and nonalcoholic beverages (juices and soda).

“The big trend this year is with regard to whole grain and getting away from the low-carb diet issues from Atkins,” she says.

Prices for doughnuts, pies, pastries and other baked goods tend to be stable, while prices for carbonated beverages — soda — can fluctuate, mostly reflecting the waxing or waning of discounts and promotions, Ms. Schneider says.

Back at the grocery store, one clerk quipped that he would like to have Ms. Gaffney’s job — shopping all day.

“This is actually really complicated,” says Ms. Gollannek, Ms. Gaffney’s boss. “Everything that makes up the minutia of your life” as a shopper, the government’s price checkers are keeping tabs on it.

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