Cheaper Groceries? Depends What and Where You’re Buying: Grocery Store Price Changes from June to November 2021 in State College, PA

Inflation has been a big topic of late, as everyone has watched prices rise in recent months. Indeed, the Consumer Price Index (CPI), a measure of inflation tracked by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), has risen 6.2% over the past year (ending in October 2021), the largest 12-month increase since 1990. However, this number doesn’t tell the whole story. CPI is calculated as the weighted average of prices of a basket of goods and services for 75 urban areas throughout the U.S. This suggests that many less populated areas are left out of the national measurement. It is of course possible to calculate your own local CPI if you want by tracking the prices of a basket of goods and services where you shop. However, this could be wildly different from the national CPI depending on what you include in this basket.

I found this out myself when I recently looked into how grocery prices had changed at my local Wegmans since I wrote an article in June about switching to cheaper meal choices. While writing that article, I made up a spreadsheet to keep track of the prices of a variety of groceries I might typically buy. Since I already had that data, I was curious how the prices had changed because I’ve been hearing so much about these drastic price increases. To my surprise, I actually saw a 1% reduction in the price of groceries I was tracking over the 5 months from June to November, while over a similar period (CPI data for November has not been released yet), the national CPI for groceries (food at home) increased by 3.1%. This national increase consists of the following components:

CategoryChange in CPI
Cereals and bakery products2.7%
Meats, poultry, fish, and eggs5.1%
Dairy and related products1.3%
Fruits and vegetables1.0%
Nonalcoholic beverages and beverage materials3.8%
Other food3.4%
Increase in the national CPI for the subcategories of “food at home” from June to October 2021; data from BLS

I used slightly different categories for my local grocery store, but you can see that the data looks quite different below. Note that I was (usually) comparing the price per serving of the cheapest available option.

Grains

Item5-month change
Rice0%
Bread25%
Bread – whole grain0%
Bagels10%
Flour tortillas4%
Dry pasta0%
Hamburger/hotdog buns20%
Corn muffins0%
Average4%

As you can see, I saw a large increase in grain prices, even larger than the 2.7% measured by the national CPI. This price increase was driven primarily by the increase in the cheapest white bread option from $0.79 to $0.99 per loaf, as well as an increase in hamburger and hotdog buns. None of the items I tracked decreased in price over this time period.

Meats

Item5-month change
Chicken thighs15%
Chicken breasts0%
Turkey drumsticks8%
Beef chuck roast7%
Ground beef6%
Pork chops-17%
Pork tenderloins-24%
Ground pork0%
Bacon-27%
Lamb4%
Average-1%

Interestingly, I observed a large difference in meat prices in comparison to the national CPI. While the national CPI was up 5.1%, the meat prices I tracked were actually down 1%. This was entirely due to a decrease in pork prices since June, which matches with national prices as you can see below in terms of lean hogs futures. Meanwhile, chicken, turkey, beef, and lamb prices were all up slightly, but not enough to offset the large price decreases in pork chops, pork tenderloins, and bacon. I should note that my basket of meat prices was likely more heavily weighted towards pork than most people since my family tends to eat quite a bit of pork. I also neglected to include any fish prices because I did not consider fish for my article published in June (I don’t eat fish, but I should have included it since my wife and son do).

Change in lean hogs futures prices from April to October 2021; data from CME via IndexMundi

Vegetables

Item5-month change
Potatoes0%
Sweet potatoes-54%
Carrots0%
Baby carrots0%
Mushrooms13%
Lettuce-35%
Kale10%
Snow peas11%
Frozen peas/corn/green beans0%
Average-6%

While BLS combines fruits and vegetables, I separated these categories. I found that vegetable prices decreased significantly since June, driven by drops in sweet potato and lettuce prices. Interestingly, sweet potato prices actually dropped about 50% from the beginning of November to right before Thanksgiving, which is the opposite of what I would have expected for a food often eaten on Thanksgiving (note: a few days after I recorded this data, the price returned to June levels, making the overall 5-month change in grocery prices 0.5% instead of -1%). On the other hand, the prices of mushrooms, kale, and snow peas increased.

Fruits

Item5-month change
Gala apples10%
Watermelon33%
Banana-43%
Tomato sauce0%
Orange juice0%
Apple juice0%
Average4%

Fresh fruit prices were up on average. Apples and watermelons increased in price, while the price of bananas fell significantly. Interestingly, there was no change in processed fruit items like tomato sauce and juice.

Dairy/Eggs

Item5-month change
Whole milk0%
Cream cheese-26%
Butter25% (4% w/ store card)
Mozzarella/cheddar-7%
Pepper jack-8%
Parmesan4%
Eggs27%
Average-4%

Dairy and egg prices actually decreased on average, driven by drops in the prices of most cheeses. The price of a gallon of whole milk remained relatively constant, only increasing by $0.02. Meanwhile, butter prices increased significantly (though by a much smaller percentage if you use a store card), as did the price of eggs.

Miscellaneous

Item5-month change
Olive oil0%
Soy sauce0%
Peanut butter-8%
Jelly-4%
Goldfish14%
Oreos0%
Honey nut cheerios0%
Chocolate chip cookies0%
Average2%

Other food items that I tracked (condiments and snacks) remained relatively constant in price over all. However, I did observe a decrease in peanut butter and jelly prices and an increase in the price of goldfish crackers.

Conclusion

Your personal experience with inflation can vary significantly from national averages based on where you live and what you buy. For instance, the rapid increase in home prices may have little effect on you if you already own a house, but it has a huge effect on people currently looking to buy a home. Similarly, but on a smaller scale, your grocery choices may cause you to experience inflation differently than other people. If you eat a lot of pork, you may actually be paying less for groceries than you were 5 months ago, while if you eat a lot of beef, you may be paying more. Inflation affects everyone in different ways.

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