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Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

Written by Ellen Ruppel Shell

Narrated by Lorna Raver


Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

Written by Ellen Ruppel Shell

Narrated by Lorna Raver

ratings:
4/5 (21 ratings)
Length:
11 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Jul 16, 2009
ISBN:
9781400182794
Format:
Audiobook

Description

From the shuttered factories of the rust belt to the look-alike strip malls of the sun belt-and almost everywhere in between-America has been transformed by its relentless fixation on low price. This pervasive yet little examined obsession is arguably the most powerful and devastating market force of our time-the engine of globalization, outsourcing, planned obsolescence, and economic instability in an increasingly unsettled world.



Low price is so alluring that we may have forgotten how thoroughly we once distrusted it. Ellen Ruppel Shell traces the birth of the bargain as we know it from the Industrial Revolution to the assembly line and beyond, homing in on a number of colorful characters, such as Gene Verkauf (his name is Yiddish for "to sell"), founder of E. J. Korvette, the discount chain that helped wean customers off traditional notions of value. The rise of the chain store in post-Depression America led to the extolling of convenience over quality, and big-box retailers completed the reeducation of the American consumer by making them prize low price in the way they once prized durability and craftsmanship.



The effects of this insidious perceptual shift are vast: a blighted landscape, escalating debt (both personal and national), stagnating incomes, fraying communities, and a host of other socioeconomic ills. That's a long list of charges, and it runs counter to orthodox economics, which argues that low price powers productivity by stimulating a brisk free market. But Shell marshals evidence from a wide range of fields-history, sociology, marketing, psychology, even economics itself-to upend the conventional wisdom. Cheap also unveils the fascinating and unsettling illogic that underpins our bargain-hunting reflex and explains how our deep-rooted need for bargains colors every aspect of our psyches and social lives. In this myth-shattering, closely reasoned, and exhaustively reported investigation, Shell exposes the astronomically high cost of cheap.
Publisher:
Released:
Jul 16, 2009
ISBN:
9781400182794
Format:
Audiobook

About the author

Ellen Ruppel Shell is a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and writes for Discover and the New York Times Magazine, among other publications. She is associate professor and co-director of the Program in Science Journalism at Boston University. Fat Wars was published by Atlantic in 2004.


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What people think about Cheap

4.1
21 ratings / 15 Reviews
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Reader reviews

  • (4/5)
    This is a well written, timely book that takes a look at the American obsession with low prices, and the impact that has had on our culture, on the environment, and on the global community. Well researched, and with enough humor and personal stories to make it easy reading, in spite of the numbers and statistics that turn some people off (though there are those of us who like them!). Overall, it should be a part of every library, and required reading for anyone who believes that cheap goods help make America great.
  • (5/5)
    This book had a strong impact on me. It presents a history of pricing and discounting and suggests that cheap products and discount pricing have a negative effect. Paradoxically, the cheapest price might not represent the best value, for society (cheap is built on cheap labour which can have negative effects) and even for the individual (maybe a smaller quantity of better quality items would be better).
  • (4/5)
    Cheap is an intriguing expose on the modern American desire for bargains fed by discount stores and discount ideology in more areas of commerce than one would realize. Ruppel Shell offers a fascinating history of discount stores from the late 19th-century to present. Interestingly, many of the originators went under by the 1980s to be absorbed by the more ruthless corporations of today. The hidden costs of inexpensive purchases are then detailed from environmental destruction, human rights violations of the employees who manufacture, distribute, and sell the products, the dangers of poor quality goods to the consumer, the erosion of the middle class, and the fact that a lot of this cheap stuff isn't even worth what we pay for it. Ruppel Shell makes the interesting point that we now live in a world where there are high-end goods and discount goods, but no reliable in-between. IKEA, Wal-Mart, and outlet malls are singled out as some actors in the discount culture, but the closing "hope-for-the-future" chapter also details companies like Wegmans and Costco that are thriving despite adopting strategies that go against the grain of discount culture. While the essence of this book is not likely to be surprising to most readers, it is still eye-opening in its details.
  • (2/5)
    Very interesting book with a solid argument about consumer trends in the US. Much better than Free.
  • (4/5)
    This is a well written, timely book that takes a look at the American obsession with low prices, and the impact that has had on our culture, on the environment, and on the global community. Well researched, and with enough humor and personal stories to make it easy reading, in spite of the numbers and statistics that turn some people off (though there are those of us who like them!). Overall, it should be a part of every library, and required reading for anyone who believes that cheap goods help make America great.
  • (4/5)
    Interesting discourse on the psychology of buying and the history of discount shops in the US, then on globalization and the effects of buying bargains on workers in other countries as well as the US. Thought provoking. Scary when it talks about the really low percentage of food inspection, considering the numbers of toxic contamination found. Good narrative nonfiction.
  • (4/5)
    Living the frugal life (yes, my resolution for the New Year, and still going strong) also made me read a bit on the subject, and I must say that Ellen Ruppel Shell's book is both a very insightful and thought-provoking look into the world of discount culture. In a time where "cheaper is better" and given the current economic situation, it's bold to stand up and point out that low prices come at a high cost – to people, to the environment, and to society. Sure, we all like a bargain, but often, and when you look close enough, you'll find out that so-called bargains are anything but. And let's not forget how, far too often, investing in “cheap” ends up quite expensive for the consumer. This is overall a well-written and comprehensive book, focusing on the psychology of consumer shopping and the process of mass manufacturing. Including a truly inviting bibliography that incourages to further reading.In short: An engaging and informative read on the topic of discount culture and its impact on our society!
  • (4/5)
    Ellen Ruppel Shell's work follows a logical flow from why consumers beginning in the twentieth century were drawn to cheap items and progresses toward how the free market either responded to these desires with, or perhaps led consumers toward, discount retailers such as Wal-Mart or IKEA. Cheap does not explicitly criticize the concept of globalization, perhaps because Shell feels the supply/demand and import/export world is already too far intertwined globally to back out now. What the American shopping world has become is plainly looked upon negatively, although Shell doesn't necessarily feel the way of shopping 70 or 80 years ago is better in a romantic sort of view. What Cheap advocates is an awareness on the part of the consumer of how elevating low price to the priority position in decision making doesn't come without consequences. Some may find this book too tedious to read, as both the psychology of consumer shopping and the process of mass manufacturing are explored in great detail. However, if you can process all of the research Shell has included in this work, Cheap provides a clear argument defending its thesis that "Discount Culture" does indeed have a much "Higher Cost" than most consumers ever consider. Shell should be commended for the level of research and the number of interviews Cheap has synthesized into this volume, as well as a good balance of anecdote without attempting to emotionally sway readers with such evidence. Although not the goal of her work, two very difficult issues should be considered as the reader concludes Cheap. First, globalization is not an infinitely progressive process. Outsourcing low-skilled production to low-wage countries "seems to make some sense." However, "the assumption that America is the land of endless innovation begs a critical question: Can the majority of us be--or do we want to be--constantly creative or inventive? Even if this unlikely prospect were the case, Americans hold no monopoly on entrepreneurial zeal, creativity, or intellectual firepower. . . . Despite the hopeful projections of globalists, the demand for even the most skilled workers is not endless, and the idea that more and more Americans can reinvent themselves into ever more challenging work is a pipe dream" (211-212). Secondly, the enormous discounters must be held more accountable to the public by regulatory agencies, whether governmental or independent. Better ways to stabilize costs must be instituted, because if low price (and therefore higher profits, either through margin or volume) is the only goal of discounters, the environment, low-wage nations, and even the consumer will all crumble under the weight of global discounters' market influence.
  • (4/5)
    A 4/5 for content but only a 3/5 for writing - while each individual chapter is interesting, they don't particularly flow together well.Interesting information about the psychology of pricing, the long history of discounting--which goes much farther back than I expected, and of the devastation wrought by the 'race to the bottom' of low low prices.
  • (3/5)
    A little bit behavorial economics, a little bit socialist treatise, Shell's book discusses low prices, Americans' love of low prices, and the effect that the pursuit of them has on the world in industries ranging from food to clothing to furniture and to just about everything sold in places as varied as Ikea, Wal-Mart, and Red Lobster.The book argues that cheap, poor-quality items push well-made items out of the market, and that workers willing to work for what little money is available to pay them make better paying jobs harder to come by. Her implied solution is that we should all insist on quality and insist on paying more for it, and that all our lives will be better off in all aspects if we have fewer, but better things.Two questions nagged at me as I read Shell's relentlessly haranguing book, however: 1) why should consumers be *forced* to buy expensive items? Sometimes cheap will do (remember those chartreuse shoes you had to buy for your best friend's wedding? $29.99 at Payless vs. $300 Manolo Blahniks?). Sometimes it's even preferred. 2) Just because the consumer willingly forks over more for an item, what guaranty is there that the money will go into the pocket of the workers, rather than into the hands of the company executives or stockholders? At one point Shell seems to dismiss the idea of buying locally from the manufacturer when possible, but this - which may also be pricier - seems to be more likely to get money into the hands of the "workers" than agreeing to give the Tommy Bahama company a few more dollars per shirt, expecting they will use the money to raise the wages of workers in China.In the main, I do agree with many of Shell's premises. Unfortunately by the end of the book, which was so long, so shrill and strident, I found myself resisting her arguments and wanting to go on the offensive to defend my right to buy cheap things. That, as well as believing that the problems of the world go well beyond cheap lobsters and uncomfortable particleboard sofas, kept me from giving this book a better rating.
  • (2/5)
    Discount culture is not a product of warped consumer psychology or of elaborate neuro-scientific investigations. Shell misdiagnoses the cause of discount culture, and so cannot give a useful prognosis for a cure.And it is remorselessly American in a very parochial way.
  • (5/5)
    I have to admit it took me a little bit to actually get into this book . Now that I am finished I think the historical elements at the beginning may be the weakest section. The book is somewhat depressing as it really offers no solution -- simple or other wise, but I think it poses some really important questions and provides plenty of evidence that the real cost of the cheap stuff we seek out and buy is a price we will not be able to hide or to continue to pay for long.
  • (4/5)
    Having only recently bathed in the glow of rosy optimism that is Chris Anderson's Free, Cheap is the cold shower guaranteed to give the reader pause for thought. Many things are certainly a lot cheaper in America than they have ever been, but it's not all affordable. For example, on page 157: Average household income in 2003 was higher than it was in 1971, Americans spent 32% less on clothes, 52% less on appliances, and 18% less on food. However, over the same period mortgage payments have increased 76%, health insurance 74%.Things are not cheap where it counts, and those things that are cheap are not sustainably so. Chapters 4 to 9 reveal the hidden costs - to skills, wages, the environment, human rights & culture - of cheap.Let me add another statistic not cited by the author: In 2007, 62% of all bankruptcies were medical ; 75% of these medical debtors had health insurance. Staggering.You would need half a dozen books or more to do this subject justice (for example, Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation represents a fuller treatment of the issues raised in chapter 8, "Cheap Eats"). Thankfully, Ellen Ruppel Shell provides extensive footnotes and references for those wanting to explore, say, the fascinating insights gained from the psychological studies of consumer behaviour in the excellent chapter 3, "Winner Take Nothing".But is there a solution? How to arrest price's race to the bottom, dragging living wages and the environment with it? Even if the huge economies of the developing world do become bastions of democracy and rule of law, there is still human nature to contend with (again, see chapter 3).By way of a remedy of sorts, Shell takes her cue from Adam Smith's ideal of "enlightened self interest" , and gives us the closest to a working example - on a large scale - in Wegmans Food Market. The key to company profits seems to be investment in well remunerated and looked after staff, which in turns attracts and keeps customers. Qualities beyond the number on the price tag that support wages and profits. And I love the idea that not all Wegman stores strive to be identical in look and layout.A more subtle point is made which, again, is worthy of further exposition. In contrast to the local marketplace of Smith's time (but still in existence in local markets such as the example of Haymarket on p. 220) - "Discounters shroud their offerings, selling virtually identical products as different brands, and B-grade versions of national brands. Or, like IKEA, they hide shoddy construction - and questionable practices - with clever image making and design. The cheaper the goods, it seems, the harder retailers work to keep us from knowing about them, And the more narrowly we focus on price, the easier we are to fool."I must agree with her on IKEA - on my first and last visit to an IKEA store, a particle board storage shelf snapped in two under gentle pressure from my hand.Enlightened self interest, in other words, is impossible in a world of commerce where it is difficult to know where a product came from or the conditions under which it was manufactured. Therefore, if consumers cannot buy based on knowledge of product, then price alone becomes the determinate.An excellent read, even if the ideal marketplace of Smith seems unattainable. Perhaps the user generated revolution of web 2.0 will assist in greater product awareness amongst consumers. Or does the promise of instant gratification via online bargains just compound the problem?Either way, I hope this book stimulates some serious comment from the economists and consumers alike.
  • (4/5)
    This book is made of two different parts. The first part analyses low prices from the psychological, cognitive point of view. Why we are attracted by low prices, how we react, and so on. The second part analyses the reason for cheap prices, the implications and the costs. The two parts are loosely connected. The impression is to switch to a different book from a different author. While the first part tries to provide an objective and scientific perspective of the problem, the second part is taking a very strong position. While I agree with most of the ideas proposed by the book I’m a bit uncomfortable with this unusual way of mixing opinions and data. Also the book is ignoring the price mechanism and psychology for online sales and prices. Ellen doesn’t even try to analyze the differences between the traditional buying process and the new different online process. I purchased this book hoping to find this type of analysis. Not only I work in e-commerce, I also believe the psychological mechanism activate by the online shopping and purchasing (e.g. on Amazon) are different from the mechanism governing the traditional retail shopping and purchasing (e.g. Walmart).
  • (4/5)
    All my nonfiction recently seems to be about This Mess We’re In in varying ways. This book is loosely organized around the concept of low price, starting with the cognitive challenges it presents: we mistakenly think that discounts from originally high prices are somehow better than beginning with the ultimate price, even when that’s the same amount. But we also devalue cheap. Shell argues that the relentless pursuit of cheapness has led American producers and consumers to discount quality, and that quality has decreased a lot faster than price, so we’re not getting the benefit of our bargains. She looks at the environmental and social costs of cheapness—deforestation for disposable Ikea furniture, deskilling and lost jobs for products that used to require craft to make well, environmental devastation for cheap Asian shrimp, labor abuses for all sorts of goods made in China, and so on. Sometimes Shell’s tone crosses over into distaste for people who are willing to accept the knockoff over the original, especially when the product is fashion-based, but at core she’s arguing that almost everyone is harmed by cheapness, which has destroyed the good-quality middle that used to prevail. And cheap paperclips, she points out, can’t make up for the collapse in buying power many Americans have suffered with increasing income inequality, fewer high-paying jobs, and Wal-Mart as the pioneer of business practices; food may absorb less of a percentage of our budgets, but housing, education, and other things have become so much more expensive that we haven’t become wealthier, just busier and more ill-served by our buying habits.