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


Alina Selyukh, Heard on Morning Edition, NPR

September 16, 2019


Shoppers beware. That warning has come from economists ever since the trade war with China began last year. Eventually, they said, the fight between the two economic superpowers will hit regular Americans with higher prices at the cash register. The tariffs will bite.


Already some things are costing more. But the impact of the tariffs is uneven.


In August 2018, NPR began tracking how those tariffs might trickle down to shoppers at the world's largest retail store chain Walmart. Since then, every few months we've checked prices of about 80 products at one Walmart in Liberty County, Ga., with tariffs in mind.


After one year, some prices in NPR's basket of goods have climbed significantly, at least in part because of the tariffs. The price of a dog leash has climbed 35%. A screwdriver costs 7% more.


But prices are complicated. They don't automatically rise with tariffs.


In fact, shoppers are only starting to feel tariffs. Last year, the Trump administration specifically targeted industrial materials and parts, rather than consumer products, to avoid shocking Americans with price hikes. The new rounds kicking in this month and in December will more directly affect a lot more of the things people buy every day, such as shoes, clothes and electronics.


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 such as Vietnam.


Many makers and sellers have so far chosen to absorb most of the tariffs, spread them across dozens of items, or pressure suppliers to bear more of the burden. Big U.S. retailers such as Walmart, Target and others get the final say on the price tags, and for them, jolting shoppers with price hikes is the last resort.


When it comes to the prices inside NPR's tariff-inspired shopping cart, the average price change since August 2018 was a 3% increase. That's almost double the current rate of inflation.


It is important to note that some prices actually declined. The two most expensive Chinese-made items in NPR's basket got cheaper: a TV by 12% and a microwave by 17%. That's because TVs and other electronics have been getting cheaper for years.


Tariffs are only part the story. Prices go up and down for a variety of reasons. For example, Procter & Gamble last year raised prices on Charmin toilet paper and Bounty paper towels noticeable in NPR's shopping cart because of higher costs of transport and raw materials such as paper pulp.


The trade war's impact ...


Not easy to shift manufacturing ...


Food and personal care prices ...


more, including infographics, links, table, audio [5:41 min.]