PracticalDad Price Index – May 2016:  Start Watching the Shelves

Deflation reigns.

The May installment of the PracticalDad Price Index is now ready, prices for the 47 item marketbasket gathered at three unrelated grocers, averaged and calculated.  The result?  Deflation continues as the Total Index dropped from April’s level of 101.64 to a current level in May 2016 of 100.66 (November 2010 = 100), a decrease of almost a full basis point.  When I remove the ten non-food items, the remaining 37 item Food-Only Index did increase marginally from April’s 101.40 to May’s 101.60 (November 2010 = 100).  This month’s Total Index drop was fueled by one grocer’s decision to drop the cost of a package of Enfamil formula and another’s decision to significantly drop the price of both adult and children’s store-brand ibuprofen.  Magnify these types of decisions by the untold number of prices that are on the shelves of grocers across the United States and you have a sense of what’s occurring.

There is another significant difference this month and that pertains to what I’ve noticed as to the inventory levels maintained by the grocers.  There have been occasional blurbs noted online – and I can’t verify where I’ve read them – about what might be going on with the inventory levels at retailers as people might have noticed that clothing racks suddenly appear to be more widely spaced apart than they might have been in a previous visit several months before.  Because the PracticalDad Price Index is a monitor of grocery prices instead of inventory levels, I haven’t paid explicit attention to what’s happening with the product inventory.  It’s something that I’ve begun to notice within the past years in a huh… fashion as shelves might appear to have fewer of the item in stock than previously or even missing it completely, leaving me to work with the shelving label.  But I was taken aback this month to see entire gaps in the frozen food section of one grocer as multiple products were missing in entirety from the case – and the shelves were still labelled for those products.  This observation raised a mental concern and that concern was confirmed when I visited another grocer to find a perceptible difference in the quantity of products on the shelves of the health/beauty aisle.  In this particular store, there was the typical variety of health/beauty products for sale but in far less quantity than I ever recalled seeing previously; there would be handful of an item but it would be set back against the back of the shelf and the front part of the shelf would be completely empty.  Magnify this across an entire spectrum of products in the health/beauty section and it appeared utterly barren.  When I continued through that particular store, I began to note other areas in which the product line appeared to be well-stocked but only because the amount on the shelves had been moved forward but there was very little behind it.  In other words, there was no product in depth on the shelving as I’d seen in previous months or years.

So what is the upshot?  As family incomes continue to decline and the middle-class American is stretched, this economic emaciation is beginning to move through the greater economy as grocers now appear to be far more actively culling their inventory levels to maintain their margins and profitability.  I’ve already noted that a grocer might opt to no longer carry a product because it simply isn’t profitable – two of the three grocers no longer carry cases of size 3 store-brand diapers, for example – but this is now moving beyond the individual product choice to a broader spectrum.  So when you next walk through the aisles, looking at the shelves and have a huh… moment, there’s a decent chance that it isn’t just you.

A View From The Ridge, Part 7

I’ve said before that being an engaged father is akin to hiking a heavily forested area.  The life with kids and their activities is a forest for the trees experience as the rush from one place to the next fills your vision and planner and you don’t always have the opportunity to take a moment to reflect.  But then your wooded trail comes to a ridgeline and you can suddenly see for miles, backwards to where you’ve been as well as forward to what lies ahead and you sit for a moment and take it all in.  Such was the case this weekend as Eldest – who was in middle school when I first thought of this site – graduated from college.

The benefit of arriving early to grab seats for elderly relatives was that I could look in different directions from the ridgeline.  When I looked in one direction, considering the event in terms of this website, Eldest had progressed from middle-schooler to college graduate.  Middle, the elementary school kid at the site’s inception, had arrived the previous day with his grandparents, who picked him up at a nearby train station where he’d caught a morning train from the city where he himself is now in college.  Youngest, at the outset just entering kindergarten, was now himself in middle school and en route to becoming a truly stalwart adult of honestly surprising capabilities of observation and common sense.  When the doors finally opened and I found seats that worked, my Better Half ushered in her parents and the sons followed with Boyfriend, who had come along unannounced to surprise Eldest.

In another direction from the ridge was to see things in terms of the college experience and while one was now graduating college, the youngest was still a good two years away from beginning the pathway to higher education; it will probably be a college degree given his growing skill set and inclination, but the reality is that the cost of a degree is such that it can no longer be the de facto choice, the road taken simply because it’s what everybody is expected to do when high school is finished.  My wife and I have now lived through two rounds of college solicitations – and folks, it’s fascinating to see how different the college mailings are from one kid to the next – and prospect visits, completion of the dreaded FAFSA and the excitement of the acceptances and first moves away from home.  What also crossed my mind was that the funding of college was now a family affair.  This was, for Eldest, a communal family effort as her debt-free degree was in due to multiple parts: a decent scholarship that made the difference between this particular university and a local state university; four years of hard work through summer jobs to help pay for her annual contribution to the cause; years of savings and then input into the pot by us; and a lovely piece of generosity from another elderly relative.

In another direction was the view of my own age and mortality.  It’s now more than two decades since Eldest’s birth and as she has aged, so have I.  Some years ago, a now-deceased elderly friend commented to me that in his head, he was the same guy who once served as a Marine and a firefighter and I have come to appreciate his statement.  All three of the kids have grown up knowing that their father has a physical debility and each has adapted to it through the years.  But it’s fallen most upon Youngest to help pick up the slack caused by the issue and his siblings’ college absence.  It’s a most curious coincidence that he is now the largest and strongest of any of us within the household, most capable of picking up and covering for said slack and I go to lengths to avoid abusing him because of it.  I have to admit that there was conflict between personal pride and common sense during the wait, as I considered a lengthy drive behind the wheel of a 16′ box truck with no cruise control and it was only after acknowledging to myself that I’m no longer a thirty-something young father, that I agreed to let someone else handle that aspect of the move.  I plan to be around for Youngest’s event in less than a decade but there’s a point at which you realize that it’s time to adjust the speed downwards and go for distance instead of speed.

But doors open, crowds enter and the view fades and you are once again in the forest amidst the trees, waiting for that next moment when you reach the ridge.  Maybe I should make it a point to try for the ridgeline more often.