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Many Americans are still experiencing sticker shock at the supermarket

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Many Americans are fed up with the high cost of feeding their families. Even though grocery prices have largely leveled off in the last year, many still feel sticker shock every time they visit the supermarket. NPR's Scott Horsley explores these attitudes as part of an occasional series on how inflation continues to weigh on Americans' daily lives.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Ellie Currence used to enjoy grocery shopping, but in recent years, it's become a chore. She no longer brings her husband along. He's too much of an impulse buyer. And Currence, a new mom, who lives outside Kansas City, needs to concentrate on hunting for the best deals.

ELLIE CURRENCE: Every time I go to the grocery store, everything's more expensive, which is a huge bummer because of the essentials that I need, you know - diapers, formula, milk, eggs, bread. It's just hard. I work full-time. My husband works full-time. You know, I feel like at this point, we're moving more towards survival mode rather than thriving.

HORSLEY: Cindy Sienar is also frustrated. I reached the retired autoworker in Lynchburg, Va., as she was driving to the Aldi discount supermarket.

CINDY SIENAR: We want to make potato salad, but if you go to buy mayonnaise, it's going to cost you $6 a jar now. It just doesn't feel right to me.

HORSLEY: When NPR asked listeners this summer where inflation stings the most, grocery prices was one of their top concerns. Sure, those prices have inched up only about 1% in the last year or so. But food economist David Ortega of Michigan State University notes that's on top of a nearly 6% increase the previous year and a jump of almost 12% the year before that.

DAVID ORTEGA: What consumers are reacting and feeling is the cumulative effect of inflation. Another factor is that unlike other prices, we see and experience food prices on a weekly, if not more frequent, basis because we buy food more often than we get a haircut or book a vacation or buy a car.

HORSLEY: Amanda Whitworth was so alarmed by rising supermarket prices, she took a second job. She now works three nights a week at a Target store in Florida, stocking those grocery shelves, taking advantage of the employee discount and pointing other customers towards bargains.

AMANDA WHITWORTH: If I hear a gasp or something like that, I'm like, may I show you something comparable? Or, you know, sort of point them in the right direction and let them know I understand that I feel the sting as well. I've kind of always been that weirdo that would drive across town for cheaper green beans.

HORSLEY: That's not weird anymore. Many people have become more strategic about their grocery shopping - choosing oatmeal over packaged cereal, swapping cheaper pork for pricey beef and experimenting with lower-cost store brands, even if, in Sienar's kitchen, that requires a little subterfuge.

SIENAR: My husband will only eat Heinz ketchup. So I bought Aldi ketchup, and I put it back in the Heinz bottle, so (laughter) he didn't know.

HORSLEY: Ellie Currence switched her daughter to Sam's Club baby formula without a hiccup. But the discount diapers proved to be a disappointment, so she grudgingly went back to Huggies.

CURRENCE: You know, I feel like I'm using less diapers altogether, even though they are more expensive at the front.

HORSLEY: Economist Alberto Cavallo of Harvard Business School says all this shopping around takes time and effort, which is another hidden cost of inflation. What's more, his research found as more people started buying those discount products, their prices jumped even faster than the name brand alternatives. In a recent paper, Cavallo dubbed that cheapflation (ph) and says it's particularly hard on poor families who don't have a lot of options.

ALBERTO CAVALLO: Any low-income households that were already buying those cheaper brands ended up facing higher inflation.

HORSLEY: Low-income families also have to spend a larger portion of their income on groceries than wealthy families do. As grocery inflation slows, rising wages have gradually caught up. The average person now has to spend about the same number of hours working to fill a shopping cart as she did before the pandemic. Other countries Cavallo studies have suffered even higher food inflation, but that's little comfort to shoppers in this country who grit their teeth with every trip through the checkout aisle. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGIA SONG, "IT'S EUPHORIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. 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.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.