By  on August 16, 2007

Everybody is price obsessed these days — consumers, retailers, even the federal government, which watches price tags as closely as any budget-conscious shopper, only for different reasons.

Prices on women's apparel dipped a seasonally adjusted 0.2 percent last month, compared with June, and were off 1.4 percent against a year earlier, according to the Labor Department's Consumer Price Index released Wednesday.

The CPI also showed that prices for suits and separates slid 2 percent in July versus June and were down 1.1 percent from a year earlier, as outerwear prices dipped 4.1 percent during the month and were off 1.7 percent from a year ago.

Guided by an ongoing survey of consumers and updated with regular price checks in stores, the CPI is an effort by the government to keep a finger on the pulse of the economy. Pricing information on 80,000 goods and services is collected monthly and ultimately used to keep the evolving economic picture in focus and connected to the lives of real people.

Retailers looking at the overall figures can see where they are by comparison and chart broader trends among consumers. The drop in apparel prices fed into the broader index, which showed a seasonally adjusted 0.1 percent rise, or a 0.2 percent increase in the "core" index, which excludes prices in the volatile food and energy markets. Core prices rose by between 0.1 percent and 0.2 percent during each of the last six months.

The index tells a sweeping macroeconomic story, but the prices it represents are collected bit by bit by a small army of government employees, including Rebeccah Vermandel, an economist in the Bureau of Labor Statistics' division of price programs.

One day in June, she walked up and down the long aisles at an outlet store in the Richmond, Va., area, trailing a couple of fingers along the selection of women's coats, a portable computer slung over her shoulder.

Vermandel, 22, who began working for the Bureau in September, was looking for a spring-summer women's polyester athletic bomber jacket with a sequenced logo. The bureau insists the brands and stores surveyed remain anonymous.

After a few minutes of searching, she found the jacket and punched into her computer that it was still priced at $59.99. Combined with price checks in other stores around the country, that information led to a diagnosis of a 6.9 percent seasonally adjusted drop in women's outerwear prices so far this year.The bureau has about 85 full-time employees and 450 part-timers around the country checking the retail prices.

"We're kind of the anonymous arbiters of what's going on out there," said Maureen McDevitt Greene, assistant regional commissioner at the division of price programs, who accompanied Vermandel. "In any given month, most prices don't change."

Some do, though, and those changes have significant consequences. Everything from tax brackets and social security payments to the annual wage increases of many private employees are tied to CPI's fluctuations in an effort to keep up with inflation.

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