Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

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"From the shuttered factories of the Rust Belt to the 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 - an engine of instability in an increasingly unsettled world. Our fixation on low price has also fueled a surfeit of consumption that threatens our health, imperils our environment, lowers our standard of living, and even skews our concept of

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Overview

"From the shuttered factories of the Rust Belt to the 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 - an engine of instability in an increasingly unsettled world. Our fixation on low price has also fueled a surfeit of consumption that threatens our health, imperils our environment, lowers our standard of living, and even skews our concept of time." Low price is so alluring that we 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 to discount retailers and beyond. Cheap spotlights colorful characters from F. W. Woolworth to Gene Ferkauf, whose E. J. Korvette discount chain helped wean customers away from traditional notions of value. The rise of the chain store in postwar America led us to favor convenience over quality, and big-box retailers completed our reeducation by making us prize low price in the way we once prized durability and craftsmanship.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
According to Atlantic correspondent Ellen Ruppel Shell, our culture's obsession with convenience and the lowest possible price has led to shoddy goods, economic instability, planned obsolescence, and environmental mayhem. Cheap particularizes the domino cascade of economic, political, and psychological ramifications of our low-cost fixation. A cutting-edge view of cut-rate practices.
Laura Shapiro
Ruppel Shell doesn't conclude with any grand ideas for reshaping the world's economy…But she doesn't need to formulate grand ideas here. She's delivered something much more valuable: a first-rate job of reporting and analysis. Pay full price for this book, if you can stand to. It's worth it.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Atlantic correspondent Shell (The Hungry Gene) tackles more than just "discount culture" in this wide-ranging book that argues that the American drive toward bargain-hunting and low-price goods has a hidden cost in lower wages for workers and reduced quality of goods for consumers. After a dry examination of the history of the American retail industry, the author examines the current industrial and political forces shaping how and what we buy. In the book's most involving passages, Shell deftly analyzes the psychology of pricing and demonstrates how retailers manipulate subconscious bargain triggers that affect even the most knowing consumers. The author urges shoppers to consider spending more and buying locally, but acknowledges the inevitability of globalization and the continuation of trends toward efficient, cost-effective production. The optimistic call to action that concludes the book feels hollow, given the evidence that precedes it. If Shell illuminates with sharp intelligence and a colloquial style the downside of buying Chinese garlic or farm-raised shrimp, nothing demonstrates how consumers, on a mass scale, could seek out an alternative or why they would choose to do so. (July)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
USA Today
The book is an engaging exploration of the ways cheapness is making our lives worse. What's more, it conveys how difficult it would be for Americans to abandon their focus on low prices. Reading this book, however, might be a good first step.
—Seth Brown
Library Journal

Just in time for the current economic recession, Shell (The Hungry Gene: The Insider Story of the Obesity Industry) investigates America's fixation with discount retail prices. Historically, consumers have believed that "buying cheap" was "buying smart," but Shell assembles convincing evidence that our appetite for cheap products has led to an explosion of "shoddy clothes, unreliable electronics, wobbly furniture and questionable food." She points out that the rise of the Industrial Revolution in this country saw the simultaneous rise of mass production, which fostered the aims of early retail pioneers such as John Wanamaker and F.W. Woolworth. Now, with its cheap labor force producing cheap goods for the American market, China is largely responsible for much of the discount boom prevalent today. Ironically, Americans have significantly curtailed their buying, thus impacting retailers and in turn causing enormous problems for the Chinese economy. Shell rightly concludes that "technology, globalization and deregulation have made competition a death march," forcing companies to eliminate jobs, lower quality standards, and depress wages, all with the purpose of creating cheaper goods, resulting in a kind of unending vicious cycle. VERDICT This highly intelligent and disturbing book provides invaluable insight into our consumer culture and should be mandatory reading for anyone trying to figure out our current financial mess. As Shell proves, the hunt for cheap products has hurt us all. Highly recommended for smart readers. —Richard Drezen, formerly with the Washington Post/New York City Bureau


—Richard Drezen
Kirkus Reviews
Or, supersaturate me with enough junk to clog the arteries of the good life. Those who remember the early 1970s, writes Atlantic contributor Shell (Fat Wars: The Inside Story of the Obesity Industry, 2004, etc.), may be surprised to learn that, even for all the decline in relative wages and buying power, most of the necessities of life are cheaper today. We pay about a third less for clothing, about a fifth less for food and a quarter less for cars. This lowering of cost, Shell warns, comes at a hidden price, and there lies the heart of her argument, which is as much aesthetic as financial. One of the costs of cheap goods is obvious: Manufacturers chase cheap labor across the planet in order to produce them, which in turn lowers the labor value of American workers. Another of the costs is less obvious: Inexpensive goods devalue the notion of craft. "The ennoblement of Cheap," writes Shell, "marks a particularly radical departure in American culture and a titanic shift in our national priorities." The author traces that departure across a trajectory of opinion in which, a century ago, the purchase of mass-produced, inexpensive goods was considered a lapse of taste. This view was largely undone by pioneering merchants such as John Wanamaker (of Philadelphia department-store fame) and Eugene Ferkauf (of Korvette's), as well as the post-World War II emergence of a particularly acquisitive consumer culture that, as John Kenneth Galbraith grumbled, nursed a battery of "wants that previously did not exist." Shell's pronouncements on economics get a bit fuzzy, but her Silent Spring-like moralizing about the effects of superabundant, indifferently made goods will find an eager audienceamong acolytes of the uncluttered, simple, debt-free life. Diligent, useful cultural criticism, akin to Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation (2004) and Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic (2008).
From the Publisher
"Even when you disagree with Ruppel Shell, you'll find yourself learning a great deal and enjoying the experience." —-The Boston Globe
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594202155
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 7/2/2009
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Ellen Ruppel Shell is a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, and has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, National Geographic, Time, Discover, Seed, and dozens of other national publications. She is the author, most recently, of The Hungry Gene, which was published in six languages, and is Associate Professor and Co-Director of the Knight Center for Science and Medical Journalism at Boston University.

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Table of Contents

Introduction Gresham's Law 1

1 Discount Nation 7

2 The Founding Fathers 30

3 Winner Take Nothing 55

4 The Outlet Gambit 88

5 Markdown Madness 109

6 Death of a Craftsman 125

7 Discounting and Its Discontents 149

8 Cheap Eats 163

9 The Double-Headed Dragon 188

10 The Perfect Price 207

Acknowledgments 233

Notes 239

Bibliography 281

Index 287

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
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Sort by: Showing all of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 28, 2010

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    Smart snapshot into the world of discount shopping

    Science journalist Ellen Ruppel Shell offers many insights in this terse, but engaging overview of the discount industry, starting with the image of shoppers browsing mindlessly through discount store aisles filled with shoddy merchandise. Her mix of history, economics and psychology delivers a disturbing portrait of the discount industry from the industrial era to the present day. Some of her examples and arguments are repetitive or simplistic, but after reading this book, you'll think twice about every price tag or special promotion. Shell, who acknowledges that she's a bargain hunter, too, never gets preachy. Instead, she prompts you to examine the hidden financial, political, environmental and global costs of discount culture. Many so-called bargains are not good value, and shoppers pay extra tolls in wasted time and resources. getAbstract recommends this book to shoppers, economists and executives in the retailing and manufacturing industries.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 12, 2009

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    Hmmmmm...

    I saw the author on CSPAN3 and I enjoyed her talk. I picked up the book at the B&N store in South Bend and have gotten through 1/2 of it. It's very interesting and deals well with retail, discounting and the ways that this is harming our society. The contrasting of Wanamaker and Woolworth and the ultimate result was very absorbing.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2010

    Book reader

    It was a GIFT, it was requested by the Recipient,who had read a part of the book and
    wanted to have a Copy. The Rating was by the Recipient.

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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