How the Irish gave up on their pressure cookers: 25 years of CPI

Consumer Price Index tracks inflation but reveals goods and services that have fallen out of favour

Consumer Price Index: gives an insight into how Irish families have changed their eating habits, their houses and how they entertain themselves

Consumer Price Index: gives an insight into how Irish families have changed their eating habits, their houses and how they entertain themselves

 

Pressure cookers, woks, ice-cream cakes, milk of magnesia, wallpaper borders. Remember the days when these were all regular items on the typical Irish family’s shopping list?

Well you may or may not, but thanks to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), we have a readily accessible historical archive of our shopping habits through the years.

The main function of the CPI is to measure inflation, and it does this by sending out a team of price collectors across the State to quantify changes in the average level of prices paid for consumer goods and services. It tells us whether prices are rising or falling, and where the pressure points might be (the latest index shows that prices fell by 0.3 per cent in the year to March).

It also, however, tells us what people are spending their money on – and what goods and services no longer find favour with the Irish public and have been confined to the annals of history.

Yes the CPI can tell us about far more than just price movements; it’s also an insight into how Irish families have changed their eating habits, their houses and how they entertain themselves.

After all, it’s not static. The index measures the price of a basket of some 634 goods and services, and these components are reweighted on an annual basis, depending on their enduring popularity – or not – with the Irish public.

Every five years, a significant “rebase” or reconstitution of the index happens. New products and services can be introduced while older, less popular items are taken out of the basket. The next such rebase is set for January 2017.

Taking a stroll down memory lane, we cast our eyes back to various CPI indices starting in 1989 up to the last in 2012, and consider what the index can tell us about ourselves.

What we eat . . .

Along with the deep fat fryer (surprisingly, perhaps, still in the index), the humble pressure cooker was a regular feature in many an Irish home, promising to cook your joint of bacon or Irish stew in half the time, saving time and, more importantly perhaps, energy bills.

It got the chop in 2002, however, along with simpler – ie cheaper – cuts of meat, that might have been cooked in it.

There was no mention of striploin steak or chicken fillets in the CPI back in 1989 for example, when a chicken was a chicken and pork shoulder a roast; you bought bacon as a “collar”; salmon was tinned, not fresh; and the joys of prawns and scallops were yet to become a regular presence on the Irish dinner table.

Coffee was instant, and tea was loose or in bags. Now we have filter coffee and herbal teas. And while the humble swiss roll, along with custard, has long been a staple of the Irish diet and remains so, there is no longer a place in our shopping trollies for jelly or tinned peaches.

But the index is as much about what we now eat as what we no longer eat.

If the index is to be believed, for example, we didn’t eat in a Chinese or Indian restaurant until 2007, or cook with olive oil or garlic until 2002 (or at least we didn’t in large numbers).

In later years, the CPI reflects a move towards convenience food, with cereal breakfast bars and fresh chilled ready-to-eat meals, a greater health consciousness with gluten-free foods and the addition of the famed George Foreman health grill entering the list just as we waved goodbye to “cooking fat”.

But the index also shows our somewhat contradictory nature. Yes there has been a trend towards healthier food; but also signs of the much-touted obesity epidemic, perhaps thanks to the rise in sales of baby juices, frozen meals “oriental” and “children’s sugar breakfast cereals”.

And drink . . .

Thanks to our love of Baileys, we’re ahead of the UK when it comes to cream liqueur – it was added to the list back in 2002, unlike our neighbours across the water who have just added it this year.

But the index also has some surprises – like how did gin and tonic, which was discarded in 2002, become so unpopular? And it seems we never had champagne until it entered the index in 2007 when the Celtic Tiger was roaring and Veuve Clicquot was flowing freely at the Galway Races.

In 1987, wine was either “table wine” (glass of Blue Nun anyone?) or sherry, and there were 10 categories of beer, including stout.

Now there’s just three types of beer, although given the rise in popularity of craft beer, one might expect the forthcoming rebase to broaden this category once again.

And we’ve moved on from the likes of Le Piat D’Or (which the French never adored, much to our surprise . . . or chagrin), with “fine quality wine” entering the list in 2002 – not sure if that applies to the €6 special in your local German discount supermarket.

You weren’t asked for a round of bright blue bottles of Wicked back in the 1980s either, but reflecting changing tastes (or lack thereof) “flavoured alcoholic drinks” now appear on the list.

How we entertain ourselves

The UK equivalent of our Central Statistics Office made the headlines recently when it disclosed that it had dropped nightclub charges from its index, as not enough people are still paying for entry to trip the light fantastic.

Here in Ireland, enough of us are still paying for nightclub charges for them to make the CPI, but how we entertain ourselves has changed dramatically – at least in terms of the medium we use.

The past 30 years has seen upheaval in how we watch and listen to television and music. Records, CD singles, radio cassette players, compact disc players and video players have all been consigned to the dustbin, and an entire generation is missing out on the joys of the “mix tape”, with the removal of the humble blank cassette tape reflecting its decline in popularity.

And continued change is likely.

The MP3 player replaced a discman/walkman in 2007 but surely, with the advent of Spotify and streaming, this too is likely to be removed in the next rebase. Thanks to the introduction of smart TVs and tablets, both of which entered the list in 2012, how we watch TV – and how we pay for it – is also changing.

TVs, for one, are getting bigger. A “small” television was reclassified as having a screen of up to 26 inches in the 2012 survey, up from 24 previously, while what was previously considered to be “widescreen” was then reclassified as “mid-range”, with a screen of between 32 and 42 inches.

We also buy our own TVs, although even these may soon be replaced by tablets/laptops. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, people moving out of home into flats would often rent, rather than buy, a television. And when it was broken, it wasn’t brought back to the shop to be recycled and a new one purchased in its place. Instead it was brought to the local TV repair shop; or at least it was up until about 2002 when the CSO stopped counting TV repair and TV rental.

And televisions are not the only thing we no longer rent. DVD rental was removed in 2012 (funnily enough the same year Netflix entered the market. How prescient was the CSO?).

How we live

Back in 1989, doctors’ house calls were common enough to have made the index, but frequently used reproductive goods such as condoms and pregnancy tests were limited in use (or supply).

Today, house calls are largely consigned to the past and have made way in the basket for the introduction of alternative medicine, such as fees for a homeopath, chiropractor and acupuncturist.

Milk of magnesia was once a common treatment to settle upset stomachs but has declined in popularity, as has a bottle of custom cough medicine made up by your local chemist, neither of which is included in the index today.

We don’t polish shoes like we used to, or get milk delivered on our doorsteps; we do still have zips but it seems not enough of us are paying to get them repaired, and while we’re still paying for nightclubs, ballad sessions have become a niche interest.

When we buy furniture, we’re increasingly forgoing the traditional three-piece suite in favour of a so-called “lounge suite”, and Spanx has replaced a girdle.

And those wallpaper borders? We had a brief – but intense – love affair with the decor trend, inspired perhaps by Changing Rooms. It was added to the index in 2002 but, in the way of fashion, by 2007 we’d moved on to “feature walls” and the border was consigned to our recycling bins or left to fester alongside other ill-advised interior decorating ideas in our garages and attics.

The latest changes to the CPI can be found at http://iti.ms/1TmyO9O

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