Backstory: Mrs. Murphy, inflation detective

That lady in produce could be one of the government sleuths bringing you the monthly Consumer Price Index.

It's 9:25 a.m., the kids are safely dropped off with relatives, and Beth Murphy is ready to embark on another binge of serial store-hopping. Before she picks her son and daughter up again in the early afternoon, she'll visit a clothing store, two supermarkets, a pharmacy, a sporting goods outlet, and a camper-trailer sales lot.

But Mrs. Murphy is no shopaholic. She's a mild-mannered price detective who buys nothing. She reveals data only to bureaucrats at the US Department of Labor. And the products she checks are the same ones she priced last month, and the month before, and the month before ....

The result is one of the most closely watched indicators of the economy's health – the consumer price index, or CPI. Everything from the direction of interest rates to the annual adjustment of Social Security benefits is pegged to it. July's CPI is set for release Wednesday morning at 8:30 and will help the Federal Reserve decide whether to raise short-term interest rates in a battle against inflation.

The CPI couldn't happen without the work of Murphy and about 400 other part-time "economic assistants" who gather data across the nation.

Their skills are developed on the job – starting with two weeks of intensive training in Washington. But the Labor Department looks for people with proven aptitudes and affinities such as math, marketing, or statistics. Murphy has a degree in economics. The pay is often $14 to $22 an hour for an average of 22 hours a week.

On her shopping foray last week, Murphy was dressedmuch like anyone on a humdrum shopping trip – but with a professional focus.

9:30 a.m. She pulls into a parking lot in Tyngsboro, Mass., just south of the New Hampshire border, to check the biggest item on her shopping list from a category that her bosses call "unpowered boats and trailers." But on stop No. 1, Murphy hits snag No. 1. Her target – a specific brand of camper-trailerwith a fold-down tent – isn't in stock. Two were sold recently, a manager says, and there are no more on the lot. She can't just ask what the price will be when the camper is restocked. The Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics requires Murphy to get today's price, not yesterday's or tomorrow's. (And she's not supposed to reveal names of stores she visits or specific products she looks at.)

9:50 a.m. Now, Murphy pulls into a sporting goods store in Hudson, N.H., and golf is on her mind. She doesn't play, but in 15 years collecting data she's learned many things, including the technology behind the golf club she's checking.

"It's just called a wood. They're not made of wood anymore," she says. Faced with a sea of competing brands, she finds the club she's looking for.

She frequents this store, like all the others, because a data analyst in Washington sent her there. The Labor Department decides these things based on a Census Bureau survey of what real-life Americans say they buy and where. Once in a store, however, it's up to Murphy – drawing on disciplined training – to define the specific products she'll check each month. Essentially, the system is designed to ensure that, if she's just going to check two or three items each month, those items are representative of what that store is selling.

On her first visit to retail outlets, Murphy talks to managers about what they sell. She enters broad categories into her hand-held touchscreen computer, which then makes random choices for her. "You're grouping and you're randomly narrowing down," to a single product to check, she explains.

That's how she got her golf list: A single 9-wood club, a full set of irons, a box of balls, and a pull-cart for clubs. She samples these items six times a year. Today, they're all in stock – a price-checking grand slam.

10:20 a.m. It's tomato time. At thissupermarket, as at all her stops, Murphy makes sure a manager knows she's there. It's a formality, but it's part of a routine centered on the voluntary participation of retailers. She beelines it for the produce section and finds a bag of vine-ripened cherry tomatoes. Then grape tomatoes. Both prices are entered on her touchpad. Good to go.

Like other data collectors, Murphy is expected to keep her work life separate from her shopping life. But, she hints, there's no rule against a mom making mental note of where the best cereal prices are, for example.

10:45 a.m. She's in Nashua, walking into a pharmacy, and Murphy's professional acumen is about to be tested. The CPI is designed to indicate the overall price level of a basket of goods and services typical of what Americans are actually buying. But sometimes, products are evolving quickly, so the "basket" can't really stay exactly constant from month to month.

In this case, the pharmacy has decided it will no longer sell a brand of nighttime cold medicine on Murphy's checklist. They're going to replace it with a generic bottle.

The CPI includes both generic and brand-name drugs, but she can't simply substitute the price of the generic product. There's a system for finding substitutes – so she ends up pricing a severe- congestion medicine with the same brand and similar ingredients as the one no longer stocked. Her substitution will be noted and, if it sparks concern, Murphy could hear from a "commodity analyst."

The Labor Department could just ask thousands of store managers to send in prices every month. But accuracy might suffer, Murphy explains. Some "respondents" might get lazy and just ballpark prices. Many would have no patience with Labor Department guidelines, such as the way Murphy found the replacement medicine or rules on how to factor in coupons and other retailer incentives. At least for now, measuring inflation is a job for paid professionals.

11:10 a.m. Now at a Nashua mall, it's time to check a ripstop rain jacket at an outdoor-clothing chain. In spring and summer, the CPI will have a price for a lightweight jacket. In fall and winter, it'll be a warm parka. (Most items in the CPI are checked year-round, but many are seasonal.)

11:50 a.m. The price detectiveis at another supermarket. Murphy has traversed some traffic and made it to this final stop – to check spaghetti and wheat germ.

Then she's off to pick up the kids and get home to transmit data for the August price report. Each month's report includes data collected during three sample periods of about a week each. Today's is just a fraction of Murphy's work for the month. She also checks services – from asking a college about its tuition to asking landlords and tenants about rent.

As all this shows, the CPI isn't simply an "index," it's a composite of many little indexes. Even as the cost of energy and healthcare rise, prices of other goods such as computers may fall. The overall index is designed to represent the price pressures facing most Americans.

But for all its science, the CPI inevitably involves controversy too. Is it biased on the high or low side? Economists continue to debate the matter, and it's important, because the CPI affects things like the income of retirees, adjustments to income-tax brackets, food-stamp and school-lunch programs, and public perceptions of whether "real" (inflation adjusted) living standards are rising.

But the inflation detective doesn't carry such burdens on her own shoulders. "My job," she says simply, "is to make sure I get the right item and the right price."

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