He shops to track U.S. prices

The Baltimore Sun

SANTA ANA, Calif. -- Frank Dubich and shopping never mixed.

After bungling a few supermarket trips years ago, Dubich's wife banned him from pushing a shopping cart. (He bought too many expensive and oddball items.) And retail? Forget it. Too tiring for this buttoned-down Huntington Beach, Calif., retiree.

Yet for the past three years Dubich has found satisfaction - and a bit of fun - hoofing about bread aisles and clothes racks, hunting for everything from tangelos to prom dresses.

The one catch: By the time he gets home his car trunk is empty.

As one of 350 economic assistants for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Dubich, 60, meticulously tracks prices for the decades-old Consumer Price Index, known as CPI. When the bureau reports on surges in food prices, it's because workers like Dubich have fanned across the nation compiling grocery data.

He never buys a thing.

"At the end of the day, I don't care if something is $100 or $1,000. That's none of my business," Dubich said. "I just follow the price to see if it's going up or down."

In 2001, Dubich retired as a senior planning economist at the port of Los Angeles. That job required him to track "shipping trends" for millions of international commodities. When a friend told him about a part-time government gig tracking consumer prices, the job seemed right up Dubich's alley.

Besides food and apparel, economic assistants track prices on consumer electronics, dry cleaning services, rental properties, dental services and auto repairs.

In a typical month, Dubich travels 800 miles in his silver Chevy Cobalt looking for specific items the government considers typical American consumer goods. The 80,000 items the bureau tracks nationally each month are based on household Census surveys.

Dubich's share varies. On any given day, he could be shopping for as few as two items per store, or as many as a dozen. Some staples are constant.

Soup. Tuna. Milk. Bread.

"I've followed shortening for years," Dubich said.

In Washington, economists crunch the numbers logged daily by Dubich and others to create the CPI. Dubich - who since Sept. 11, 2001, has worn an American flag pin on his shirt pocket each day - considers the work a badge of honor.

His work can alter your paycheck.

The CPI is closely watched by everyone from the Federal Reserve to the Social Security Administration to labor organizations.

The number, which tracks inflation, can result in changes to Social Security payments, food stamp benefits and the price of a child's school lunch.

"The CPI is not some esoteric statistic that only matters to ivory tower economists," said Amar Mann, an economist with the Labor Department's San Francisco office.

That's why you'll never see Dubich stray from his shopping list. If the list calls for "chunk light" tuna in water, not oil, that's what he gets.

"You get paid to be exact," he said.

During a recent stop at a grocery store, Dubich parked at the back of the parking lot even though there are plenty of spaces up front.

"I try to be as non-interfering as possible," he said.

The supermarket is one of three Anaheim, Calif., stores he visited that morning. Because his work is confidential, the names of the stores are being withheld from this article. Not even his wife knows where he shops.

"At first I thought this job was going to be a piece of cake. It's just going around pricing grocery items, right?" said Dubich.

But some tasks are challenging, if not embarrassing.

While collecting grocery data is normally a smooth process for Dubich, women's apparel stores are another matter.

"I stand out like a sore thumb in an apparel store," he said.

One rainy Friday evening, for example, Dubich had to find a prom dress.

In the crowded store, he held up provocative dresses to the light so he could get a better look at the tags inside the dress. At one point, three women stared at him, eyebrows raised, as he reached inside the dress to read a label.

"It doesn't look very good," Dubich said.

He got his price and moved on.

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