What prices at a Walmart in Georgia tell us about inflation
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
There's a story in every shopping cart, from the wood pulp in a roll of paper towels to fruits and vegetables that survived floods and droughts. For the past four years, NPR has visited the same Walmart store to try to track prices, get insights into global trade and a ground-level look at the U.S. economy. NPR's Alina Selyukh joins us. Alina, thanks so much for being with us.
ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hello. Hello.
SIMON: What did you learn?
SELYUKH: Yeah, so we started this project during the trade war with China. It can be hard to remember that. That was 2018. And since then, we've been walking every aisle of this one Walmart store south of Savannah, tracking prices of dozens of items. We went back last month, and the big headline this year is kind of depressing, maybe not too surprising. Since pre-pandemic, prices in our shopping cart, on average, increased about 23%.
SIMON: Ooh. Ooh.
SELYUKH: And one reason we chose Walmart, other than, you know, it's the most popular supermarket - it puts a huge focus on keeping prices stable day to day. So when Walmart prices do change dramatically, they can reflect big shifts. And in this case, there were just so many of them - first, those tariffs the U.S. put on Chinese imports, then the pandemic chaos in the supply chains, wages finally starting to rise, wild swings in the cost of fuel, the war in Ukraine. And these are just the general themes. Many products have their own particular stories also.
SIMON: Well, share a couple with us that you've discovered.
SELYUKH: Yeah. For example, oatmeal - Quaker Oats saw one of the biggest price jumps in our basket, 73% since 2019. PepsiCo, which owns Quaker, did not talk to me, but I did find out that in 2021, a severe drought caused the worst oat harvest in North America since basically the end of the Civil War - pretty wild. And I do want to tell you about another thing that we saw that's kind of fascinating, which is shrinkflation.
SIMON: Of course, that's when companies will put in fewer tissues into the box or fewer chips in a bag...
SIMON: ...Or chips in a cookie.
SELYUKH: Exactly. I actually have props for this. I brought something from our shopping cart that illustrates this perfectly. OK, it is a classic bar of soap by Dove. Does it look unusual to you, Scott?
SIMON: Well, it looks like a bar of soap. You mean, is it smaller?
SELYUKH: Ding, ding, ding.
SIMON: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
SIMON: I'm thinking it is smaller.
SELYUKH: So this very same bar of soap in 2019 used to weigh 4 ounces. Now it has shrunk by a quarter ounce, which you can't really see, but you can sort of guess since I am asking you about it.
SELYUKH: Unilever, which makes Dove, also didn't talk to me, but we found that now you have to pay almost the same amount of money for an eight-pack of this Dove soap as you would have spent on a 10-pack before the pandemic. And so experts say that if you're really intent on getting the best price, it's worth checking the price per unit, like item in a package or per ounce in this case.
SIMON: Alina, did you discover anything that got cheaper?
SELYUKH: That is the question everyone wants to know. Yes. Yes, actually - Argo corn starch, a Vizio TV, garlic, shoelaces and a screwdriver, which got 60% cheaper since 2019.
SIMON: Really? Screwdriver's 60% cheaper?
SIMON: Why did these prices drop? How can they arrange for that when everything is going up?
SELYUKH: Yeah, OK. So with the TV, it's pretty clear. TVs get cheaper every year. And last year, electronics were often overstocked. With the rest, it gets kind of weird. Argo, for example, told me they did not actually lower their corn starch prices, suggesting maybe Walmart did that. And stores do sometimes lower prices of some items and then raise them elsewhere in the aisles, so maybe that's what happened. And with a screwdriver, we saw another common technique. Walmart used to carry a big-name brand. They were Stanley screwdrivers. But now it's got its own store brand called Hyper Tough. Private brands are usually more profitable for stores. So if they can get away with not offering a big-name brand, this way, they can lure shoppers with lower prices while still making their money.
SIMON: NPR's Alina Selyukh on the watch, thanks so much for being with us.
SELYUKH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.