In a shop stacked to the ceiling with toys, Brenda Cleaver is searching for a very specific car. “I am looking for a modern road vehicle, and I am checking the price. Here it is. It hasn’t changed,” she says, comparing the price sticker on the toy car with the information on her handheld computer. She moves on in search of a snakes and ladders game.
Cleaver is one of hundreds of people across the UK who help collect thousands of prices each month to feed into a national basket that keeps track of the country’s inflation rate. These field workers look for the same items in the same stores each month and send their prices into the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in Newport, Wales.
The exact dates for each month’s price collection is kept secret to avoid risking a change in shop prices on that specific day.
Once complete, the collectors’ reports are used by ONS number crunchers to price a 700-item shopping list that includes food such as sliced bread and other items ranging from hamsters to golf club fees and cinema tickets.
The idea is to measure how fast prices are rising or falling – now in sharper focus since the Brexit vote pushed down the pound and ended the UK’s era of virtually zero inflation.
The latest rate, measured on the consumer price index (CPI), was the highest for two and a half years, at 1.6% and figures out on Tuesday are expected to show it pushed higher still in January to 1.9% as sterling’s weakness continued to raise the cost of imports such as fuel and food ingredients. Policymakers at the Bank of England are under instruction from the government to try and keep inflation close to 2%.
This week’s number, as in every month, will be based in part on 100,000 prices for around 520 items harvested by price collectors in 150 places. They are employed by market research firm TNS, which has the contract for price collection.
Cleaver has been tracking price changes since TNS first got the contract in 1994. She now supervises collectors for 17 areas across London and the south-east, training them and accompaning them on a regular basis to ensure they are sticking to the standards required.
“We are the foot soldiers. We are the people who go out and collect the same items each month,” she says.
Inflation estimates are used to help set pay rises, benefits, rail fares, and also reflect the cost of living faced by households. The Bank of England tracks inflation to assess if it has set interest rates at the right level to stop prices soaring or sinking – known as deflation.
Cleaver moves on from Nuxley Toys in Gravesend to Elephant Music, where she seeks a beginner’s acoustic guitar with a wooden body and neck.
The price collection is always done with the consent of retailers and Dennis Halberg, co-owner of the store, says: “It’s something I am a little bit proud of that we’ve got a product in the prices measure”.
Cleaver has found the guitar and is checking if the strings are nylon or steel. On her mini computer she points to last month’s description and explains a price collector ideally tracks the same item. Changes in technology and fashion mean that it is not always possible to make exact comparisons, in which case the collectors will find a comparable item.
A jumper, for instance, would need to be a similar style, the same or similar material and similar quality. The collector makes a note for the ONS statisticians that it is not exactly the same item. There are also notes to show if something is in the sale, back at full price, temporarily out of stock or a new item altogether.
There is also a weight change indicator which the collectors may find themselves using more this year. This would show, for example, that a chocolate bar weighing 60g last month was 50g this month. If the price is the same and the weight has gone down, there has indeed been some inflation for that item, or what has become known as shrinkflation.
As imports have become more expensive, some manufacturers have deployed this shrinking tactic to absorb some of their higher costs. But it rarely goes unnoticed and when Toblerone spaced out its signature triangles last year it caused an uproar.
At the ONS, it never goes unnoticed, says consumer prices statistician Philip Gooding. “In any case where we are getting a change in quantity, we would adjust for it,” he says.
Gooding and his colleagues complement the price collectors by gathering another 80,000 prices for 190 items over the telephone and internet, such as solicitor fees and mobile phone charges.
The ONS also updates the basket each year to reflect people’s changing habits. In recent years, satnavs and frozen pizzas have come out, and music streaming services, headphones and craft beers have gone in. Last year e-cigarette stores were added to the price collectors’ beat to complement the information already being collected from online retailers.
Statisticians also use “web scraping” where software collects prices from websites.
In her 22 years collecting prices, Cleaver has witnessed the rise of online grocers, the spread of chain stores and the decline of independent corner shops. Will web scraping spell more change for inflation’s foot soldiers, or even their ultimate demise?
She is serene. “If it’s going to happen, there’s nothing we can do.” But for now she feels there is still a place for boots on the ground. “The internet is so inconsistent.”
Gooding insists that as long as people use shops there will be collectors.