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Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

3.4 5
by Ellen Ruppel Shell

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A myth-shattering investigation of the true cost of America's passion for finding a better bargain

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 with bargains is arguably the


A myth-shattering investigation of the true cost of America's passion for finding a better bargain

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 with bargains is arguably the most powerful and devastating market force of our time, having fueled an excess of consumerism that blights our land­scapes, escalates personal debt, lowers our standard of living, and even skews of our concept of time.

Spotlighting the peculiar forces that drove Americans away from quality, durability, and craftsmanship and towards quantity, quantity, and more quantity, Ellen Ruppel Shell traces the rise of the bargain through our current big-box profusion to expose the astronomically high cost of cheap.

Editorial Reviews

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

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

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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

Meet 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.

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Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Marlan Winter More than 1 year ago
She has lots of good info with lots of data. A little rambly, but a great topic. We need to question quality and maybe pay for it - if we have the smarts - or we will have trouble finding it if we want it.
TheAgencyReview More than 1 year ago
My first job out of high school was in a local family-owned department store. It had about seven or eight departments ranging from toys to records to paperclips to cameras to “gifts”. It was started in the 1920s by a little old man who still came in every day, though he’d handed the reigns off to his son. Our customers knew they weren’t getting the cheapest price when they shopped with us. But they came in nevertheless. Why? Perhaps for convenience (we were right in the middle of town), or because they wanted to support the community, or because they were comforted that the family who ran the store backed up every item they sold. Or maybe some other reason. That store has long since gone out of business, but I was reminded of it time and again while reading Ellen Ruppel Shell’s “Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture”. For I realized not only that stores like that don’t exist any more, but that even trying to describe them to my kids meets with the kind of incredulity I get when I tell them about phones that were attached to walls, or why 8-track tapes were once a good idea. For when Ms. Ruppel Shell talks about “cheap”, she does not (to read the rest of this review, please visit: : http://wp.me/P23AlC-DW)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
TEST NOOKUSER More than 1 year ago
not enough pictures, over i give two of my three thumbs up
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beware, this book sends out a creative vibe. Chris Anderson writes about how free marketing actually boost a business net profits. He explains that the world is becoming actually free; explaining it as 20th century free and 21st century free. It is the world of bits not atoms, where most things online in the cloud are thought as being free. Chris Anderson explains how free reaches the maximum amount of people possible to gain interest in the smaller part of the business. His ideas were amazing and wonderful but most of these business techniques only applied to major corporations, which was not much help to me - given that I am not the CEO of a corporation. His ideas were already proven by his examples, in fact this book could be read as a history of "free" and I applaud him for including intuitive historical information since it gives the reader a great understanding. His ideas can be seen in most of today's life, his biggest example was Google and how so many of its products are free. Many of his concepts were complicated to grasp, but he did give specific examples from our actual life which made his thoughts conveying and easier to understand. The theme of the book was "free" and the different types of free, but to some readers the theme might get old, and drawn out - he did not bring up any new and exciting brilliant ideas, it seemed like he ran out of stuff to say. He restated what most people, who spend any amount of time on the internet already, know - not to say it was a bad book but could have been a bit more insightful. His theme of the new free was very motivating - I found myself constantly thinking of ways to incorporate his ideas into my future plans. What other kinds of business could be built on "free"? Everyone needs to read this book, even though for some it might not be their type book. It shows how the fundaments of economics have changed with the "bit" world and what the new century brings to the meaning of free. This book changed my outlook on life, it made me think of what we get for free every day but in return pay for every day. The book is well written and well thought out; he gives clear examples and successfully expressed his ideas. Though I did find the book a bit repetitive from time to time I still would recommended it any one since it gave me great inspiration to find the next big thing.