06 April 2008

In-Store Specials?

I'm not sure I buy it, but the Denver Post asks the question: Are grocery chains gouging food stamp customers?

A (highly unscientific) study of 4 Denver area chain groceries over 4 visits between September 2007 and January 2008 revealed that, on average, check-out prices for the same 12 items in lower income areas reached a higher tally by 4% than the same 12 items purchased at sister stores in more affluent communities.

The take away? That remains uncertain. The Post, by its own account, seemed to struggle with the math.

Ground beef prices varied greatly from store to store and week to week, affecting the final cost of the grocery basket. That's because stores serving more-affluent neighborhoods at times did not carry the less expensive, fattier beef, while their lower-income counterparts sometimes lacked the more expensive, leaner meat. For that reason, beef is included in some totals and not others.

I'm not sure how the varying prices effect the decision to include or dismiss ground beef from the receipt totals, nor how that skews the numbers, but the Post's logic doesn't track for me.

I could devolve now into a conspiracy-ish thread about how corporate grocers may well be trying to get the most out of the government bucks their lower income patrons trade in, and how those pennies from each transaction translate into many millions when repeated often enough. What I'd really like to know, however, is whether the Post's findings are consistent with nationwide trends. That would really cast this in a different light. And then, are we looking at a massive, organized effort to bilk the government where possible (what private contractor isn't, right now?), or, as the article suggests, is this all just the complicated byproduct of our complicated economy?

The article asks some interesting questions, even if it doesn't get around to answering them. I'd love to see some thoughtful analysis from anyone who knows more about the topic. A hasty Google search doesn't turn up a whole lot on the specific topic at hand, though I have learned that Ralph Nader is concerned about price gouging on oil by the barrel, Alice Landes is upset about price gouging for Passover foods, and food stamp use is at its highest level ever. Isn't the Internet fun?