Each month, hundreds of employees of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) gather data on prices of goods and services from stores in 87 cities and from websites. The BLS constructs the consumer price index (CPI) by giving each price a weight equal to the fraction of a typical family’s budget spent on that good or service. (CPI is discussed in Macroeconomics, Chapter 9, Section 9.4 and in Economics, Chapter 19, Section 19.4.) Ideally, the BLS tracks prices of the same product over time. But sometimes a particular brand and style of shirt, for example, is discontinued. In that case, the BLS will instead use the price of a shirt that is a very close substitute.
A more difficult problem arises when the price of a good increases at the same time that the quality of the good improves. For instance, a new model iPhone may have both a higher price and a better battery than the model it replaces, so the higher price partly reflects the improvement in the quality of the phone. The BLS has long been aware of this problem and has developed statistical techniques that attempt to identify which part of the price increases are due to increases in quality. Economists differ in their views on how successfully the BLS has dealt with this quality bias to the measured inflation rate. Because of this bias in constructing the CPI, it’s possible that the published values of inflation may overstate the actual annual rate of inflation by 0.5 percentage point. For instance, the BLS might report an inflation rate of 3.5 percent when the actual inflation rate—if the BLS could determine it—was 4.0 percent.
As the inflation rate increased beginning in the spring of 2021, a number of observers pointed to hidden inflation that was occurring. There were two main types of hidden inflation:
- The quality of some services was declining
- Some packaged goods contained smaller quantities at the same price
Here’s one example of the deteriorating quality of some services. Because during 2021 and 2022 many restaurants were having difficulty hiring servers, it was often taking longer for customers to have their orders taken and to have their food brought to the table. Because restaurants were also having difficulty hiring enough cooks, they also limited the items available on their menus. In other words, the service these restaurants were offering was not as good as it had been prior to the pandemic. So even if the restaurants kept their prices unchanged, their customers were paying the same price, but receiving less.
Alan Cole, a former senior economist with the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, discussed these other examples on his blog: “hotels clean rooms less frequently on multi-night stays, shipping delays are longer, and phone hold times at airlines are worse.” In a column in the New York Times, economics writer Neil Irwin made similar points: “Complaints have been frequent about the cleanliness of [restaurant] tables, floors and bathrooms.” And: “People trying to buy appliances and other retail goods are waiting longer.”
A column in the Wall Street Journal on business travel by Scott McCartney was headlined “The Incredible Disappearing Hotel Breakfast.” McCartney noted that many hotels continue to advertise free hot breakfasts on their websites and apps but have stopped providing them. He also noted that hotels “have suffered from labor shortages that have made it difficult to supply services such as daily housekeeping or loyalty-group lounges,” in addition to hot breakfasts.
In all of these cases, the actual prices of the services had increased more than had the listed prices because the deterioration in quality meant that people were receiving less for their money.
In addition to deterioration in the quality of services, hidden inflation during this period also took the form of consumers buying some packaged goods in which the quantities had been reduced, although the price was unchanged. For example, in June 2022, an article by the Associated Press noted that:
• “A small box of Kleenex now has 60 tissues; a few months ago, it had 65.”
• “Chobani Flips yogurts have shrunk from 5.3 ounces to 4.5 ounces.”
• “Earth’s Best Organic Sunny Days Snack Bars went from eight bars per box to seven, but the price listed at multiple stores remains $3.69.”
An article in the Wall Street Journal observed that: “Shrinkflation, as economists call it, tends to be easier for companies to pass on to consumers. Despite labels that show price by weight, research shows that most customers look at only the overall price.”
The BLS does try to adjust the measurement of the CPI for shrinkflation, which it can do because the BLS keeps careful track of the quantities included in the packaged goods that are included in its survey.
But the BLS makes no attempt to adjust the CPI for the deterioration in the quality of services because doing so would be very difficult. As Irwin observes: “Customer service preferences—particularly how much good service is worth—varies highly among individuals and is hard to quantify. How much extra would you pay for a fast-food hamburger from a restaurant that cleans its restroom more frequently than the place across the street?” And an economist at the BLS noted that, “We do not capture the decrease in service quality associated with cleaning a [hotel] room every two days rather than one.”
As we noted earlier, most economists believe that the failure of the BLS to fully account for improvements in the quality of goods results in changes in the CPI overstating the true inflation rate. This bias may have been more than offset during 2021–2022 by deterioration in the quality of services resulting in the CPI understating the true inflation rate. As the dislocations caused by the pandemic gradually resolve themselves, it seems likely that the deterioration in services will be reversed. But it’s possible that the deterioration in the provision of some services may persist. Fortunately, unless the deterioration increases over time, it would not continue to distort the measurement of the inflation rate because the same lower level of service would be included in every period’s prices.
Sources: Dee-Ann Durbin, “No, You’re Not Imagining It—Package Sizes Are Shrinking,” apnews.com, June 8, 2022; Annie Gasparro and Gabriel T. Rubin, “The Hidden Ways Companies Raise Prices,” Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2022; Alan Cole, “How I Reluctantly Became an Inflation Crank,” fullstackeconomics.com, September 8, 2021; Scott McCartney, “The Incredible Disappearing Hotel Breakfast—and Other Amenities Travelers Miss,” Wall Street Journal, October 20, 2021; and Neil Irwin, “There Is Shadow Inflation Taking Place All Around Us,” New York Times, October 14, 2021.