Page last updated at 15:07 GMT, Tuesday, 16 March 2010

What inflation watchers can tell us about trendspotting

By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

Hair straighteners, lip gloss and garlic bread have been popular for years, yet have only just made it into the ONS's inflation basket. Why the time lag?

Man having his hair styled with tongs
Straighteners are now standard issue

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to spot that these items are popular and sell by the truckload. All have just been added to the sample shopping basket used by the Office for National Statistics to calculate the cost of living.

Yet some of these additions and subtractions seem rather overdue. Jennifer Aniston has been the high priestess of poker-straight hair for a good decade now. Even the Wags have ditched their signature straight locks - very 2006 World Cup - in favour of faux beach hair.

The ONS is hardly an arbiter of cutting edge style, but the inclusion of hair straighteners and tongs - replacing blow-dryers - in the 2010 basket seems rather behind the curve. Perhaps this says less about the fashion consciousness of the government statisticians, and rather more about how long a trend can take to reach critical mass.

The ONS inflation "shopping basket" contains about 650 goods and services, updated at this time each year to reflect the nation's spending habits. The statisticians collects 180,000 prices a month on these items to calculate inflation on the two main trackers, the consumer prices index (CPI) and the retail prices index (RPI).

Footballers' wives and girlfriends at 2006 World Cup
Straight hair? Check. Big sunglasses? Check. Yes, it's the Wags in 2006

To be included in the basket, an item will have sales of more than £400m a year, and can be taken out of the basket if sales drop below £100m a year. But this isn't the case for all items - some, such as acoustic guitars and power drills, are included to represent the wider markets for musical instruments and electrical tools. Another indicator of what should be in and out is the diaries and questionnaires filled in by people taking part in the ONS Living Costs and Food Survey of 6,000 households throughout each year.

Cereal bars have just been added to represent a popular type of snack not previously included. And our spending on fish in its various forms has been under-represented, so frozen fillets coated in crumbs or batter have been added to the fish fingers, salmon fillets and tinned tuna already in the basket. Remedies for minor ailments are increasingly a big seller, so the ONS has added allergy and indigestion tablets.

garlic bread
Oh, no. Oh, thank you, none of that foreign muck. What? Garlic bread? Garlic bread? Garlic? Bread? Am I hearin' you right?
Peter Kay's garlic bread skit

As for hair straighteners and tongs, we now spend more on these than hairdryers, says the ONS. This is hardly surprising - the price has come way down, handbag-sized travel tongs are now available, and - as seen in The Apprentice - men use them too. Superdrug today reported a 20% increase in the number of straighteners sold over hairdryers compared with last year.

"It may seem a bit out of touch but this is what the numbers are telling them," says Richard Perks, of the market research company Mintel. "You don't want to be adjusting the basket for fleeting trends, so it's necessary for them to let a trend build up to reflect what people are buying."

Ironed-flat hair has been in and out of fashion since the 1960s. But although early versions of hair straighteners were patented more than a century ago, few women owned such an implement until relatively recently - a more common method was to use an actual iron to smooth one's locks.

But in recent years the cost of personal grooming appliances has dropped, and, at the same time, supermarkets have added such items to their shelves, meaning one can pick up a cheap pair while popping out for a pint of milk.

Philip from The Apprentice 2009
Philip from The Apprentice sculpted his 'do with gel and hair straighteners

Garlic bread, too, may seem an unusually late addition, given it is now so familiar Peter Kay has worked a comedy routine around it. It's been on restaurant menus for decades, traditionally partnered with spag bol and washed down with Chianti poured from a raffia-bedecked bottle.

But it's only in the past 15 to 20 years that this exotic treat has made the leap to supermarket chiller and freezer cabinets, says Vivianne Ihekweazu, of Mintel, with twin baguettes in own-brand packaging nestling alongside upmarket focaccia versions aimed at the time-poor home gourmet.

"Because of this innovation, garlic bread has a much larger share of the specialty bread market. Garlic bread has about one-third of the market, compared with one-tenth for pitta bread, which it replaces in the ONS basket."

But if it seems rather passe to be be adding hair straighteners and garlic bread now - the first time both items have made it into the ONS basket in its 63-year history - the government statisticians are rather like a cutting-edge fashionista in one respect. They dropped leggings from the basket in 2008, right about the point that this look made the leap from trendsetting to ubiquitous.

Below is a selection of your comments.

OK, can someone explain to me, once you have bought your first hair straighteners, why do you ever need to buy another (and presumably throw out the old ones)? It doesn't seem very eco-friendly. Is it because of a new feature? Or because the old ones weren't very good? Or because they were cheap and broke?
Sarah Hunt, Apt, France

If these statistics had been used to prevent the small business throat-cutting practices of the large retailers we'd all have far more diverse and pleasant market town centres, and not the ghost towns that were once thriving centres for people to meet and shop.
Jamie, Berlin, Germany

How is the value of the basket calculated? Unless the cost of each item is weighted by the average frequency of purchase of said item, then the figures are going to be skewed in favour of the change in price of the higher cost items. The weighting figure should also discount, say, companies changing cars every year or after a set mileage, for tax purposes, because this has no relation to the shopping basket for the average person.
MarkB, Leicester

Does the addition of of garlic bread to the basket explain the increase in sales of indigestion remedies?
Shauna Hegarty, Belfast, Northern Ireland

The funny think about garlic bread is that I've never seen it on an Italian restaurant (as in a restaurant in Italy) menu, nor have I ever seen an Italian eating it. I think it's a bit like chicken madras, an invented foreign dish to suit UK tastes
Matt Munro, Bristol, UK

Matt, garlic bread isn't on Italian restaurant menus because bruschetta is their original version. And it is tikka masala, not madras, that was disputedly invented in the UK.
David, Solihull, UK

Cheese? Cake?
Alastair Taylor, Glasgow

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