Her legwork helps set CPI data

Updated: 2011-11-09 17:06

By Shi Yingying (chinadaily.com.cn)

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Her legwork helps set CPI data

Cheng Yuechen asks a vender about the price in Fengsheng Food Market in Shanghai, on Oct 20, 2011.[Photo/chinadaily.com.cn]

SHANGHAI - Shuttling back and forth between vendors in the crowded food market during the morning peak hours, 48-year-old Cheng Yuechen is wandering from peddler to peddler, asking for the price of almost every item available: fish, meat, vegetables, rice and noodles.

She's not a desperate housewife who's bargaining for the cheapest deal — she's a price collector working for the Shanghai Municipal Bureau of Statistics.

"Simply speaking, I'm collecting data sources for the Consumer Price Index (CPI) that is released every month," said Cheng, who does the job part-time in addition to her full-time accountant position. "Food market, supermarket, department store and car sales, my job requires me to visit wherever you spend money."

With her work duties covering price collecting ranging from a tube of toothpaste to a car, Cheng does her price survey for the selected food market every five days and other places twice a month.

"Prices for things on the dining table experience bigger fluctuations, that's why we're checking those more frequently. Generally speaking, there's always a rise in prices for almost everything in the food market after a typhoon," she said. "There're lots of seasonal goods there as well as such Shanghainese favorites as crab for the fall, for which prices change every day."

Cheng said she wouldn't refer to her weekly job as "taking a survey," mainly because "it's not as serious as you imagine." "I can remember the face of each vendor, and the price collecting process at the food market, they're all my friends," said Cheng.

Nodding to her friends selling fish and duck at the city-centered Fengsheng Food Market, Cheng said one simple smile was her usual way of starting her work. "I'd ask about the price, and sometimes the reason for the price change if there's a significant drop or surge."

Cheng usually visits many different vendors selling the same item at the market to get a fair average price. "I'd also stay for a few more minutes to observe a sale and purchase transaction, just to make sure I was offered the real price — you know they sometimes give me inauthentic price as I'm coming too often, and I'm not buying," she said.

Liu Hui, who handles the collected data source for CPI estimation at the city's statistics bureau, said only people good with numbers were qualified for the job. "Cheng's one of our best even though she only joined us one year ago," Liu said. "Most of our price collectors are women 40 to 50 years old— it's a job that the younger generation can't do as some of them can't even tell corn from turnips."

Cheng has over 10 years of experience as an accountant, which is a plus, meaning she's attentive, patient and good at figures, Liu said.

According to Liu, price collecting is a new profession that only began in the 1990s in China. "Back in the '80s, we selected retail outlets to offer us prices rather than send people to collect information, but those figures sometimes were inaccurate as they randomly gave us unreal prices," he said. "That's why we decided to have our own price collector."

"It's a rare job type and even in other cities, there aren't many," Cheng said.

Only early birds can make a competent price collector as the job requires you to arrive at the morning market around 7 am. "From 7 to 8 is the busiest period at the food market as it has the most sufficient supplies," Cheng said. "You can come at 9, but after the freshest vegetables, seafood and meat have been sold, vendors are going to cut the price and pack the leftovers, so you won't know the authentic original price."

Hou Hemei, who owns a butcher's booth at Fengsheng Food Market and has been running the business for over 15 years, said she always recognized Cheng by her smile. "My counter jumper had an accident when he delivered the pork last year, Cheng remembers that and always brings her best wishes every time she visits us," Hou said.

It usually takes Cheng an hour to go through the food market and after that, she rides her little moped to cover a few more locations. "I'm in charge of price collecting in 39 selected retail outlets out of the city's 800," Cheng said. "Food market is always the toughest one as you need to ask the price for each item one by one. In other shops, where prices tend to change less often, it's much easier to simply observe."

Despite the hard work, Cheng said the job brought some surprising benefits because of her knowledge of price changes and trends. "I knew where to buy the cheapest soy sauce, for example, and when — you have to realize when a supermarket tells you a certain item is on sale, it may not be," she said. "I'm earning 2,000 yuan a month in the amount I save in bargains."