NPR Shopping Cart Economics: How Prices Changed At A Walmart In 1 Year Since August 2018, NPR has been tracking about 80 items sold at a Georgia Walmart with an eye toward products caught in the trade war. On average, prices rose 3%. Tariffs are one of many factors.
NPR logo

NPR Shopping Cart Economics: How Prices Changed At A Walmart In 1 Year

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/753712449/761126919" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
NPR Shopping Cart Economics: How Prices Changed At A Walmart In 1 Year

NPR Shopping Cart Economics: How Prices Changed At A Walmart In 1 Year

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/753712449/761126919" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

NOEL KING, HOST:

All right. Ever since the trade war between the U.S. and China started last year, economists have been warning that it is going to hit Americans in the wallet - that we're going to end up paying higher prices for some products. So did that end up happening? Since August 2018, NPR's Alina Selyukh has been tracking prices at a single Walmart in the state of Georgia, and she has this story.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Left or right?

CHARLOTTE NORSWORTHY, BYLINE: Let's go right.

SELYUKH: OK.

This was about a year ago. Producer Charlotte Norsworthy and I walked every aisle of a Walmart in Liberty County, Ga.

Now let's go find some lamps.

NORSWORTHY: Let's do it.

SELYUKH: Our goal was to track how the trade war with China might trickle down to shoppers at America's biggest retail store chain.

NORSWORTHY: Shoe laces.

SELYUKH: OK.

NORSWORTHY: Leather.

SELYUKH: How much?

NORSWORTHY: Four dollars.

SELYUKH: Manila folder, Sharpie marker.

NORSWORTHY: Orange juice is right behind you.

SELYUKH: Scott toilet paper.

NORSWORTHY: That's going to be on aisle 23.

SELYUKH: We begin with the first tariffs the White House imposed last year on imports from China and some from Mexico and Canada. We started tracking prices of about 80 items at this Walmart.

I don't think I've ever spent this much time in a grocery store ever in my life.

NORSWORTHY: No - wait.

SELYUKH: Now it's a year later, and here's what we found. Some prices in our shopping cart climbed significantly, at least in part because of the tariffs. A set of two table lamps by Better Homes and Gardens now costs 10% more. Sylvania light bulbs, fresh garlic and a Stanley screwdriver are more expensive, too. We've also been tracking a girl's bicycle, chosen with the help of an expert.

How old are you?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Six.

SELYUKH: Which of these bikes do you like the most?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: That one.

SELYUKH: This one?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Mm-hmm.

SELYUKH: That bike, made by Kent, is now 6% more expensive. The makers of all these items did not comment on our specific products, but some of them confirmed that tariffs have pushed them to raise prices, though overall - and this is a big takeaway - the impact of tariffs proved uneven.

Many of the prices did not change; a few actually went down. For example, the two most expensive things we tracked - a Vizio TV and a Hamilton Beach microwave - they are made in China, but they got cheaper. That's because TVs and electronics get cheaper every year. Tariffs are only part of the story. Prices go up and down for lots of reasons - for example, costs of transportation and labor.

But overall, when we looked at the prices inside our tariff-inspired shopping cart, we found that, on average, the change we saw was an increase of more than 3%. That's almost double the current rate of inflation.

EMILY WANG: These things really are pretty complex, and it's very hard to forecast how the prices will change.

SELYUKH: Emily Wang is an economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

WANG: Let's say the tariff is $1. It doesn't necessarily mean that if you are purchasing, let's say, a piece of clothing that was, like, $29, now you're going to have to pay 30. It's even possible that it remains $29 or even go below.

SELYUKH: That's because makers and sellers don't like raising prices. They want to get shoppers into stores, not scare them away. And retailers, like Walmart, are powerful. They get the final say on the prices that you see. And they're also big. They can spread the new costs around the whole store or absorb them and even pressure the brands and manufacturers to bear more of the burden. Every company that imports anything from China is now making this calculation. Take, for example, makers of pet products, like a dog leash in our NPR basket.

MIKE BOBER: They don't want to have to pass these costs along to pet owners. But unfortunately, it's becoming more and more necessary.

SELYUKH: Mike Bober is the head of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council. The plastic, fabric and metal that go into making pets crates, bowls and collars have been hit by new tariffs.

BOBER: What we're finding is that, really, throughout the entire lifecycle of pet care products, everyone is feeling the pinch on this. And ultimately, prices are going to have to continue to go up.

SELYUKH: In fact, shoppers are only starting to feel tariffs. In the first few waves, the Trump administration specifically targeted industrial materials and parts rather than consumer products to avoid shocking Americans with price hikes. To the White House, the goal of tariffs is to make Chinese imports more expensive so that American companies move production and jobs back to the U.S. But few companies have actually been able to do that. Many stay put or switch to other foreign countries.

JOEL PRAKKEN: And that's, of course, one of the problems with bilateral trade battles, is it's like whack-a-mole. You know? (Laughter).

SELYUKH: Joel Prakken is the chief U.S. economist at IHS market.

PRAKKEN: For example, China and Vietnam both fish in the same waters for the fish that we get from that part of the world, and so Vietnam trade with the U.S. is booming right now.

SELYUKH: This kind of reshuffling has been happening across many products, including clothes, pencils, furniture. In some cases, like with shoes, the vast majority have historically come from China. Now more tariffs are kicking in - this month, next month and in December. By the end of the year, almost everything imported from China - from apple juice to toys to laptops - will all have a new tax. And our shopping cart might get pricier.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

NORSWORTHY: Peanut butter and jelly.

SELYUKH: Wait. That's creamy. Do we want crunchy? Are we going to start that debate?

NORSWORTHY: Are you a crunchy peanut butter-eater?

SELYUKH: Yeah.

NORSWORTHY: What? They're both 2.08.

KING: You can see all of the prices that Alina and her team tracked at npr.org/shoppingcart.

(SOUNDBITE OF CFCF'S "AQUASCAPE")

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.