Consumer Nation

Diving Partridge Demand Can't Keep Lid on '12 Days' Cost

The cost of buying the items from the classic "12 Days of Christmas" song increased by its smallest percentage in seven years in 2009, despite sharp rises in the price of gold and a minimum wage hike for the Eight Maids-a-Milking, according to PNC Bank's annual Christmas Price Index.

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Each year, PNC measures the effect of inflation on the 12 gifts given by one's true love in its holiday version of the Consumer Price Index.

The bank contacts sources such as aviaries and hatcheries to price the song's multitude of birds, and it surveys an Indianapolis retail jeweler to gauge the change in cost of five two-millimeter, 14-karat gold wedding bands.

It then uses the information to create an educational Web site for students, to teach them basic economic issues such as supply and demand.

"Over time it has reflected the general trends in the economy, but it is still a whimsical look at the true cost of Christmas," said Jim Dunigan, managing executive of investments for PNC Wealth Management

According to the survey, the price tag placed on this Christmas is $21,465.56, only $385.46, or 1.8 percent more expensive than last year. That's the smallest increase since 2002, when supply and demand issues related to the seven Swans-a-Swimming and the Partridge's Pear Tree caused the index to take a nosedive, Dunigan said.

For a dedicated true love, the cost of purchasing all 364 items in the song is $87,402.81, a 0.9 percent increase.

The biggest cause for the index's climb this year was related to the cost of gold, which has climbed above $1,194 and closed at a record high 24 times. The Eight Maids-a-Milking, the only unskilled laborers in the equation, also drove the index up when they received a pay raise for the third straight year through a 70-cent minimum wage hike.

In the past two years, their wages have risen $2.10 an hour, resulting in a $58 charge for one hour's work.

As for the skilled laborers, the Nine Ladies Dancing were the only group to receive a raise, which was mostly because their pay had been lagging behind other entertainers in the past few years, Dunigan said.

As a group, they received 15 percent more, or $5,473.07, for one performance, while the 10 Lords-a-Leaping, 11 Pipers Piping and 12 Drummers Drumming received the same amount they did last year, a reflection of the weak labor market.

"We continue to see sort of a divergence between goods and services," Dunigan said.

Two Turtle Doves now cost $55.98, a 1.8 percent increase from 2008, while the Three French Hens rose 50 percent to $45. The price of Four Calling Birds was unchanged at $599.96.

For Six Geese-a-Laying, the price slipped 37.5 percent to $150, the Partridge fell 50 percent to $10, and the Seven Swans-a-Swimming — the most volatile item on the list — dropped 6.3 percent to $5,250.

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The cost of birds differs so much among type due to their breeding patterns, their popularity as house pets, and the cost of food, Dunigan said.

"[There are] a lot of different reasons why swans would be popular from one time to another," Dunigan said. "If you want them for your wedding, or something or other, or you bought a farm … or you're giving them to your true love."

Excluding swans, the core index rose 4.8 percent to $16,215.56.

Dunigan said the difference between the Christmas Pricing Index and the Consumer Price Index, which is down 1.5 percent on the year, can be attributed to the government's exclusion of volatile energy and food costs in its calculation.

"In general, though, we saw a moderation in the PNC CPI and the Bureau of Labor Statistics' CPI due to the dramatics drop in energy, fuel and shipping costs," he said. "The reverse was true last year, which showed a major spike in transportation costs."

Speaking of shipping costs, if your true love is trying to avoid the holiday rush at the mall, he or she will pay $31,434.85 to order the goods on the Internet. Though it's a significant increase over buying them in person, it's 1.6 percent less costly than last year, thanks to a decrease in the cost of shipping, Dunigan said.

As for those hoping to capitalize on holiday sales, availability and shipping requirements might not make it worth the discounts, Dunigan said. Not only could hatcheries and pet stores sell out of a certain bird, airlines won't allow them on a flight if the temperature drops below a certain degree.

Though it varies by carrier, AMR's American Airlines, for example, won't allow birds onboard if the temperature is forecast to fall below 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

"The longer you wait, you might roll the dice of getting them all," Dunigan said. "You might try to cheap out a little bit, but you might miss the entire package."

And after all, what's a partridge without its pear tree?

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