Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Human Price Scanners Gather Confidential Data for Bureau of Labor Statistics

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Human Price Scanners Gather Confidential Data for Bureau of Labor Statistics

Article excerpt

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," Ms. Gaffney says, putting on her glasses as she peppers the manager with questions. "OK, 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.

Ms. Gaffney is a roving, often stealthy price-checker with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, one of 428 "economic assistants" 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.

Ms. Gaffney is on the front lines of collecting confidential data that is ultimately compiled for some of the nation's most important economic measures, including the Consumer Price Index. 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 a recent day, Ms. Gaffney was 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: gasoline, sugar and beer. As Ms. Gaffney demonstrated 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 said. "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 are comparing not just apples to apples but, for instance, organic Fuji apples to organic Fuji apples.

The job takes charm, because Ms. 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."

Ms. 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," said John Layng, assistant commissioner for consumer prices at the BLS. "So times change, and we are always looking to improve. …

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