Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture MP3 CD – Audiobook, MP3 Audio, Unabridged
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"Even when you disagree with Ruppel Shell, you'll find yourself learning a great deal and enjoying the experience." ---The Boston Globe
About the Author
Ellen Ruppel Shell is a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly magazine, the author of The Hungry Gene: The Inside Story of the Obesity Industry, and a professor of journalism at Boston University, where she codirects the graduate program in science journalism.
Lorna Raver has received numerous AudioFile Earphones Awards and has been nominated for the coveted Audie Award for her audiobook narrations.
Top Customer Reviews
If you really want to save money and gas, buy things from eBay.
I found the book a bit disturbing because it brought reality into view. I am guilty as charged, a cheapskate.
Our country is quickly going down the tubes as we ship all of out money off to China for goods and the middle east for gasoline. It's as if everyone knows, but no one is doing anything concrete about it. Nobody wants to be the first to say "no more Chinese junk and no more gas guzzlers and no more mega-junk dealers of food and everything else."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
After reading Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppell Shell I now understand that my frustration is the result of the replacement of quality goods by shoddy ones made in China in order to maximize profit and minimize expense. This exchange of shoddy for quality has happened as Americans have pursued low price at the expense of all else. We save money in the short term by pursuing low prices but lose much in the process including long lasting quality goods and decent paying jobs.
Shell writes for the Atlantic and is a professor of journalism at Boston University. Throughout the book I searched for Shell's anti-capitalist bias, but didn't find it anywhere. Instead she writes "Trade is and must be free," and believes that regulation and unionization is not the answer to our obsession with low prices. She quotes Adam Smith liberally and suggests that Smith himself would not be pleased with the junk on the shelves of America's superstores. She writes that Smith advocated a system whereby workers earned a decent wage to purchase a decent life, and supporting that system were Smith's heroes - consumers buying the goods and services made by the workers at fair prices. These prices weren't inflated: the consumer received a quality product that performed the job it was intended to do.
Shell discusses the usual suspects - Wal-mart, dollar stores and discount chain stores - but she zeroes in on Ikea as a firm that has built a mythos around itself to shield it from the fact that it uses illegally harvested hardwoods from the Russian Far East and Asia (Ikea is the third largest consumer of wood in the world), and sources production to some of the lowest paying companies on the planet. Shell cites a table that sells for $69. A master craftsman admitted that he couldn't buy the wood for that price, let alone build the table. Ikea headquarters exudes an aura of cultishness that is more reminiscent of Scientology than of a business. There workers design products that are meant to be made and ship cheaply - not to be comfortable. The products are given cutesy names that slaps a "happy face" onto what in essence is a soulless product.
While every move by American giant like Wal-mart is subjected to scrutiny by environmentally minded intelligentsia, she notes that Ikea is given a pass:
"Wal-mart's relentless march toward world retail domination provokes scathing exposes in books, articles, and documentaries. But most media responses to Ikea verge on the hagiographic, swallowing whole the well-polished rags-to-riches story the company wrote for itself."
Everything Ikea does is geared towards lowering its costs. Ikea's store placement outside of cities and away from public transit, as well as its refusal to deliver makes its customers drive to it is a conscious decision by the firm to minimize the cost per square foot of its stores by buying cheap land. It ships disassembled products to save on shipping and on manufacturing. It regularly squeezes its suppliers, thereby preventing workers in some of the poorest places on the planet from getting better wages while encouraging environmental abuses.
Shell's criticism of Ikea hits home because I've bought from there. In fact the table that I'm writing on is from Ikea. Its wood grain is quite dense, unlike that from plantation farmed trees. Of course only its legs are wood; it's top is wood veneer and already shows signs of wear after just three years. Did the legs come from illegally logged old-growth forest in Siberia or Indonesia? How environmentally friendly can this table be if it is already falling apart after 3 years and will need replacement in another year or two? It's not friendly to the environment - but it is to Ikea's profits if I'm stupid enough to go there and buy another table. No, it's replacement will be a nice, well-worn American table from a second-hand shop.
Shell makes a convincing case that America's love affair with shoddy goods is bad for the environment and living standards abroad. Unfortunately she could have made a better case that shopping at Wal-mart and Ikea leads to lower living standards at home. Shell mentions a worker in furniture manufacturing who was laid off by an American furniture maker and picked up by Ikea - at much lower wages and benefits. However families who shop at Wal-mart save roughly $2700 a year on their purchases, and since Wal-mart caters to the lower demographics the savings is a significant part of the demographic's income. Shell argues that this savings is less than the family would have made had Wal-mart and the discount chains not driven jobs abroad, and because the jobs are gone forever Wal-mart consumers are locked into a decreasing standard of living that no amount of savings can justify.
Shell's work is heavily footnoted but because the footnotes aren't referenced in the text, I ended up reading them on their own after finishing the book. This is a small quibble with an otherwise fine and thought provoking book, but it would have made her arguments even stronger had the footnotes been referenced.
Shell's writing style is easy to read and her ideas are well supported and researched. Her conclusion that it is up to Americans to recognize that things that fall apart quickly - like reading lamps - don't provide good value in the long run leaves the decision whether or not to improve the situation up to us.
She believes that we need to educate ourselves on the products we consume - where they come from, how they are made, and what we consume is in line with our values. If we are comfortable buying cheap crap that falls apart, sending our dollars to the Chinese government that funds oppressive regimes in the Sudan, Burma and North Korea, then we have no one to blame but ourselves.
Overall this book is must reading for anyone interested in modern American consumerism.
Alas, that control is largely illusory..."
There is so much in this book it's hard to compress into a few words, but safe to say that everyone will learn something new. It begins with history: You've heard of Frank Woolworth but you probably didn't know that he practically invented the low wage, high turnover model for retail workers. You've heard of White Sales, but you probably don't know why John Wanamaker invented them. You know about bar codes and container ships and shopping carts, but you might not know how they transformed retail.
Cheap shows that price is more than a number, it's a powerful emotional trigger that gets us to buy or not depending on a number of easily manipulated but poorly understood (by us) factors. High "reference" prices compel us to buy things we otherwise would not, under the mistaken impression that we're getting a good deal. "Shrouding" helps us overlook the true price of our purchases, and the right "framing" can fool us into thinking that a mattress or piece of jewelry is our heart's desire, when really it's just a bad deal. And don't get me started on outlet malls!
Cheap food (I work in the food industry and the observations on shrimp farming are spot-on), cheap furniture (oh no, Ikea too?), cheap labor (it's not just China), cheap loans, it's all in there, and a whole lot more. Shell traces the path of cheap from sweatshops abroad to the economic problems we're facing here today; unemployment, job insecurity, flat incomes. What you won't find is preaching. This book is not about setting policy, it's about informing consumers about where we are and how we got here. It will open your eyes a little wider and help you keep your wallet closed a little longer.
After we're seated, our waiter tells us the buffet is $9.99. I saw the menu's chicken piccata priced at $13.99. Immediately, I found myself WEIGHING the pros and cons of the buffet, even though I had no real desire for it.
My mind went through the PRO side: the buffet was cheaper than the chicken piccata; there was more variety than "just" one dish; it would give me a greater sampling by which to judge the restaurant.
Then the CON side: pasta that stays in buffets usually becomes mushy (hate that); it did not have the piccata dish; I really did not want spaghetti, macaroni, or some other dish with mussels.
I admit I was ABOUT TO order the buffet (because it was cheaper) when my mother said that she was going to order eggplant parmesan (not from the buffet). Somehow, that "snapped" me out of the buffet and I ordered what I really wanted: the chicken piccata.
This book has inspired me greatly, as I now see with much greater clarity the "system" we live in. I have also been remembering how many, many, many times, I have wanted one thing, but made a different decision because another thing was at a lower price. The experience at the Italian place was astonishing, as even though I was 3/4 done with your book, I feel into the "cheap trap"----- almost.
This book is marvelous... and also ominous, as I "get" how what happens in China affects us here. It is no longer some nebulous concept, but a basic understanding of cause-and-effect.
I have never liked places like Wal-Mart (although I worked there briefly) and am just as happy NOT to shop there, as I really WANT mom-and-pop stores to exist. I shop at Whole (Paycheck) Foods when I can, but still "die" of sticker shock at some of their stuff; nevertheless, quality matters greatly. The book talks about our lack of exposure to good products. I know the difference between freshly grated Reggiano Parmesan cheese versus the "green can" and cannot go back.
I feel great trepidation as to our country's direction now, more than ever, as offshoring seems to be "the norm". Cheaply produced foods, goods, services, etc., are firmly "ensconced" (yes, I remember Circuit City -- and Best Buy is following them right down the drain, in my opinion). I hope that we don't have to have a complete "crash" before we can collectively awaken and adopt a higher-and-better path, but I am grateful for the information in this book.
That's the point Shell is getting at, but it's broader than that. Examining the nations that make much of what we buy there's unfair labor practices, non-existent environmental laws, inequitable trade policies and other practices that give them a distinct and unfair advantage compared to goods produced by developed nations. We're thrilled to get more for less but are oblivious to the human and environmental tolls in those developing nations and to the loss of jobs in those nations that play buy the rules. Compounding the environmental cost is moving goods to market via semitrailers and other modes of transportation. While that's factored into the low cost, locally produced goods would reduce the carbon footprint even while saving domestic jobs. These are all arguments heard before condemning consumerism and there certainly are counterarguments that are equally valid. As with all things there has to be a balance and that is the crux of "Cheap": we've ceased to rationalize our purchases. Shell advocates taking a time-out before buying to determine if we genuinely need the item or are attracted by a tantalizing bargain price. It's easy to think of purchases made that turned out to be poorly made which break and cannot be easily repaired. The low price means we can throw it out guilt-free and buy a new one, but why not buy quality items that won't break in the first place?
What saves "Cheap" is the crisp concise and insightful writing. Much of what is contained here has been said before, but not perhaps as well or as persuasively argued. "Cheap" follows on the heels of other books on the true cost of our consumerism such as Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash and $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better that argue for a reassessment of the way we shop. Given consumers rethinking their purchasing habits in this economic recession "Cheap" is well timed, as its essential reading for anyone wanting to become a more informed consumer.