If you think you're not being

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Cost-of-living data helps companies work out how much to pay their expatriate employees. Rachel Emma Silverman, of CareerJournalEurope.com, meets a woman who travels the world comparing the prices of ketchup and Ricky Martin CDs.

Megan Lipman's job takes her on an endless global scavenger hunt. For her latest foray, 25-year-old Lipman flew to Malta. She's tracking down the prices for a 20-cm zipper, 20mg of Prozac, a canister of tennis balls, an automobile oil change, a 14-carat gold wedding ring, Tabasco, a dozen red Baccarat roses - and the cost to repair a washing machine. She doesn't have to find out the cost of Maltese falcons, but chickens are also on her list.

Lipman, an American citizen, works for Associates for International Research Inc, or Air-Inc, of Cambridge, Mass, which needs the price information for the European Union, a client. Numerous multinational companies and government agencies use data compiled by Air-Inc and its competitors to compute their expatriates' cost-of-living subsidies. As more businesses globalise and the expatriate population surges, employers are eager to keep a tight rein on their expats' expenses.

A life on the move

Air-Inc's 10 surveyors, aged 24 to 32 years old, say they can't imagine a cooler job. Most have encountered bizarre situations straight out of spy novels. Some have socialised with Omani royalty or encountered Mafia honchos in Slovakia. Surveyor Stacey Hamlin fled the Congo last year when civil unrest erupted. Nationwide strikes, frequent power outages and lengthy siestas sometimes interfere with valuable surveying time - but enhance their job's appeal.

"I never in my life could have dreamed that such a job existed," says Lipman. After graduating from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass, and working for two years as a translator, the Spanish and art-history major stumbled on a tiny help-wanted ad for a "Research Analyst/Surveyor". The job sounded mundane: "Responsibilities include data collection, analysis and preparation of various statistical data for cost of living analysis." But the last sentence intrigued her: "Will spend at least one-third of time in international travel."

During her job interview, Air-Inc peppered Lipman with such questions as "What would you do if you were stranded in a central African nation because the next flight out didn't leave for three more days?" (Her answer: If there were no other safe ways to leave the country, she'd try to get as much work done as she could over the phone.)

Now, the energetic Lipman, who earns USD 35,000 annually and has a generous expense account, spends more than half of the year travelling solo to far-flung locales. She's gone on pricing scavenger hunts in Doha, Qatar; Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; Dhaka, Bangladesh; Auckland, New Zealand; Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, in the Sakhalin Islands; Nicosea, Cyprus; and Anaco, Venezuela, among dozens of exotic locations.

Lipman hops from city to city for five to six weeks at a time. In each locale, she spends about three days tracking the costs of local goods and services by visiting supermarkets, drug stores, service stations, country clubs, movie theaters, real-estate offices and beauty salons.

Her recent five-day stay in Malta's ancient walled city of Valletta had a rocky start. During her journey there from a Canary Islands pricing study, she encountered multiple delays and missed connections. When she finally arrived - after almost 48 hours of travel - her two suitcases were missing.

But Lipman remained cheerful. Flight delays, reroutes and lost luggage are commonplace on her job, she says. Jetlag, though, is not a problem. Because she spends her days frantically running from store to store, "I don't have time to be tired," she explains. "I just don't think about sleeping."

How Megan does her job

When Lipman arrives at a targeted store, she whips out her business card and asks the manager if she can conduct a pricing study for foreigners. Armed with a binder and multicolored pens, she walks up and down store aisles recording prices in the local currency. She thinks about number after number, price after price. "My mind is always thinking about the next thing to price," she admits. To curb the monotony, "good radio stations in stores are key," she says.

In many shops, managers resent young foreigners snooping around their premises without buying their products and fear they may be competitors' spies. When storekeepers balk, surveyors must "go stealth". They carry around a tiny notebook and covertly record prices when workers aren't looking.

In Malta, most store owners are friendly and obliging. One pharmacy owner pulled her aside while she was recording pain-reliever prices. "Can I have a word with you?" he demanded sternly. Lipman feared he would kick her out of the store - or worse, confiscate her hard-earned data. Instead, he sheepishly asked how his college-age son could get a US internship with her employer. She gave him her card.

Lipman does some work from her luxury hotel room. A-Z Listings and notebook in hand, she calls doctors' offices, insurance agents, car salesmen and repair shops for prices. If she can't communicate in English, she hires a translator. In Malta, she is lucky. Locals speak English and Maltese, a language combining North African Arabic and a Sicilian form of Italian.

She also confers with Air-Inc expatriate clients to find out where they shop and how much they spend. In Malta, European Union Ambassador Giorgio Boggio and his attache, Joris Verstrepen, grumble about the country's high costs for certain goods, such as clothing. Such complaints are common. "Nobody ever meets with me and says that the cost of living is too low," she observes.

Air-Inc doesn't rely on overseas employees for honest price reports because they might inflate prices to increase their own subsidies. "By going there, we can be objective for corporations," Lipman says. Organizational Resources Counselors, a New York-based rival, uses expatriate surveyors, but they cannot be employees or relatives of client companies, according to Geoffrey Latta, the consulting concern's executive vice president.

After she returns to Cambridge, Ms. Lipman analyses the data she collected and comes up with an average price for each item. She compares these prices to those of a client's home country and determines how much prices have changed since the last survey. Clients decide whether to raise or lower their expatriates' cost-of-living allowances.

Surveyors' heavy travel schedules make it tough for them to have much of a social life. "Your group of friends kind of dwindles down," says surveyor Robb LaBossiere, 24. "They don't want to sit and look through all the pictures of my trips." Nevertheless, Lipman has dated her Boston boyfriend for more than a year. She sees him during her brief six-week stays at home, and he once flew to London to meet her during a survey trip.

For most surveyors, one of the toughest parts of the job is coming home and having to go grocery shopping for real. "But at least I'm actually buying things for me," says Lipman. "And I can be in and out of there in 20 minutes, instead of three hours."

Rachel Emma Silverman is a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal.

31 January 2002

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