Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture
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Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

3.64 of 5 stars 3.64  ·  rating details  ·  1,416 ratings  ·  330 reviews
An Atlantic correspondent uncovers the true cost-in economic, political, and psychic terms-of our penchant for making and buying things as cheaply as possible

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 lit...more
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published July 2nd 2009 by Penguin Press HC, The (first published 2009)
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Krista
I will never shop again.

I am thrifty. I hate to spend money. Though I have tried not to become dependent on big box stores, I do go to Target and Whole Foods on a fairly regular basis. I love a good deal. But how much do my good deals really cost?

"Cheap" educated me. And though my initial statement was a blatant exaggeration, it is solidly true that I have spent most of my mental energy while reading this book trying to formulate a plan to cut all of my ties to the world of discounting.

Sound cra...more
Sheridan
Aug 13, 2013 Sheridan marked it as to-read
Shelves: 100-in-2011, default
Much like "Maxed Out" did for me and my credit obsession, this book might cure me of my crap obsession. I've worked in retail for 10 years and have seen and experienced a lot of what she talks about in this book. People will do anything for a bargain, and more cheap crap MUST be better? It's definitely going to change the way I shop and how I shop.

The funny part: so a couple of days before I started reading this book, my mom and I were chatting about the disparity of life between when she was gr...more
Jonny99
Read it only if you can get a discount. Ellen Ruppel Shell’s cultural studies examination of the fixation on low cost doesn’t really get going until long after you have likely lost interest. Late in the book she finally gets to what she sees as the major downsides of modern global society’s pursuit of low cost at any cost: no $ for R&D, the promotion of waste and the dumbing-down of work. This final section reveals some passion and a point-of-view which are largely missing from its predecess...more
Emily
I seriously may never buy anything again.

Ok, so that's not realistic, but after reading this book I'm more aware, perhaps even paranoid, about the statement I'm making with each purchase. I'm definitely a bargain shopper, but I don't want my search for a great deal to mean that workers in Mexico don't make a living wage or that Chinese migrant workers are standing in vats of toxic substances for 14 hours a day.

But how on earth am I to ascertain that? It took Ms. Shell, with her many contact and...more
Ciara
i was excited to read this, but found it to be a bit of a slog. it's kind of like the first 200 pages are all introduction, & the author finally gets to her point & develops a point of view in the last thirty pages. it wasn't necessarily boring, but it was certainly not revelatory or especially groundbreaking.

the main thing i took away from this book & appreciated was her exorciation of the argument that discount retailers help struggling families save money & attain a higher qua...more
Avra Cohen
Most of us readily understand that sex trafficking is driven largely by the demand for sexual services. But what drives the equally odious crime of labor trafficking? Is it possible that our appetite for 'all-you-can-eat' shrimp and our incessant bargain hunting has made us unwittingly complicit in child slave labor? That is exactly what is suggested in the remarkably enlightening book CHEAP, The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell.

Here we are treated to a breezily written yet co...more
Tiny Pants
Aug 02, 2009 Tiny Pants rated it 5 of 5 stars Recommends it for: everyone!! Seriously people, read this.
Read this book, and you'll never shop at IKEA again. Never. Ruppel Shell does a truly masterful job of dissecting both the historical underpinnings and the current intricacies of what she calls "Cheap" culture, connecting Americans' penchant for low prices to the disappearance of the middle class, among other things. While this book will certainly disappoint deregulation enthusiasts, the author does a good job of considering the different arguments and counter-arguments in reaching her conclusio...more
Melanie
Read this one in Kindle format. Wasn't friendly because there weren't page numbers so I couldn't refer to the notes efficiently at all. Had to do it chapter by chapter.

Ok. This is the kind of book that simultaneously makes me hate myself and makes the cynic in me jump up and scream "SEE? SEE?" and makes me feel both self-righteous and guilty at the same time.

The idea here is that since the Industrial Revolution, our society has moved away from skilled craftsmanship in production to a more mecha...more
Elizabeth
Wow, this book made me feel bad about the fact that I was reading it while reclining in my IKEA bed. Though others have pointed to problems in copyediting, overall the author does a really good job of examining the shifts in culture that have led to our current "cheap is better" mentality.

There were a lot of good things about this book, but one of the things that stood out was her mention of social justice conflicts that exist in relation to cheap/discount culture. This was discussed particularl...more
Andy
The “Temple of Cheap” we currently enjoy in the West rests firmly on the modern global economy. In her excellent book, Ellen Ruppel Shell examines the global economic forces that bring us 3-for-1 deals at Target and All-You-Can-Eat shrimp for $15, and Shell assures us that at least a few of these forces, even we cheapos can appreciate with a clear conscience.

There is the Good: Advances in technology (computerized inventory, container ships) allow products to move efficiently from manufacturers t...more
Susy
A very insightful examination of our American obsession with getting a bargain. It is almost a reflex. Also, the myopia that Americans have with the human and environmental costs of buying cheap was startling. The awareness that downward pressure on prices not only squeezes the wages of unseen workers overseas but ultimately comes back to wring out the disposable income of American workers is maddening. If we were told that aliens were doing this to our world, we would build the laser to blast t...more
Todd Martin
“Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture” by Ellen Ruppel Shell argues that cheap stuff leads to many negative consequences.

The book starts slow out of the gate with a discussion of the history of retail followed by a few of the practices stores use to entice consumers into spending. Though mildly interesting, the information is hardly a revelation and isn’t terribly germane to the remainder of the book. After a dalliance with the idea that cheap stuff is largely crap and stifles innovation,...more
Brian Roberts
The book's central thesis, Gresham's Law applied to consumers goods (i.e. bad products, when seemingly indistinguishable from good products, will quickly dominate the market).

However, the book often veers into side topics, meandering into rants about, inter alia, IKEA's fall-apart furniture, the Levittown houses, and the perennial favorite for bashing: Wal-Mart's low prices/wages.

The book is undeniably biased and one-sided. Shell points out the social ills brought about by discount pricing, but...more
Danielle
This book got a lot of press when it was released so I was surprised at horrible editing in it, but we'll get to that in a minute. First I have to say that the book wasn't really what I was anticipating for the first 2/3. The last 1/3 was more what I was expecting in that it addressed the effect buying cheap goods has on society, which you would expect based on the title. The first 2/3 though was more psychologically based on why we are attracted to certain prices even if they don't make sense a...more
Matt
I picked this book up thinking it would likely be a repetitive, anti-WalMart critique that I'd lose interest in pretty fast. Instead it's a surprisingly engaging series of chapters detailing multiple causes and effects of the increasing trend towards discount retail over the last century in America. A couple of the more interesting topics:

- How traditionally blue-collar workers across the supply chain - in manufacturing and retail positions - have been downgraded from semi-skilled workers to min...more
Kimberly
A provocative look at everything from the truth behind "discount mania", seasonal sales (and sales in general, for that matter), the rise and lies of outlet mall shopping and the psychology finding a bargain to the seemingly manic desire to be "bargain hunters" rather than "thrifty", Ruppel Shell's book is an in depth look at what drives our emotional buying.

Starting from Wanamaker, Woolworth to Sears and continuing to present day (well, 2009), Ruppel Shell gives such a fine history of "cheap"...more
L
I wanted to give this book a higher rating based on its impact - it truly does provoke thought and, hopefully, thoughtful acton. The core premise, that Americans have disconnected the integrated relationship of worker-consumer-citizen and thereby created an ever-downward economic & cultural spiral in search of cheap, is potent and enlightening. We enable low price goods with low wage workers which then creates low income consumers who search for more low price goods. The other point I took f...more
Sarah
3.5 stars
Fascinating book about the effects of buying piles and piles of cheap crap. She took a while to get around to "the high cost of discount culture". The first half of the book is theory and backstory: things like the history of discount retailing and the phsychology of bargain hunting, which you may or may not enjoy. I found it intersting, but still it was kind of a slog at times.

The second half gets to the real-life, modern day examples: Wal-Mart, IKEA, cheap food, and Chinese sweatshops...more
Renee Reynolds
Although this comprehensive book even touches on the subject of food, Cheap does to your shopping habits what Omnivore's Dilemma did to your eating habits. After following Ellen Ruppel Shell's in-depth research from California to Sweden, you will rethink your consumptive patterns and question your desire for cheap products.

Consider this quote: "What's happening is that we are creating low-income workers who become low-wage consumers who seek low-priced goods...This is a diabolical strategy."

Or...more
Birgit
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, a...more
Janelle
I hesitate to review this because I didn't finish it, and I ended up skimming a lot of the sections I did read.

Why? I thought the author was redundant in her presentation. This book could have used some tighter editing.

But more than that, this book made me uncomfortable and anxious about buying anything. It confirmed my sense that generally, consumers are overcharged for just about everything, and that the quality of manufactured items has plummeted in recent years. I hate feeling duped and this...more
Josh Meares
Oct 21, 2012 Josh Meares rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommended to Josh by: Marisela
This is a pretty good book. There is a lot of ignorance (especially about economics and international development) and more than a little elitism ( ... "oh those dumb poor people ... if they only understood that if they bought more expensive stuff it would last longer"). However, it is worth mining for the nuggets of truth. How the push to the bottom hurts the environment. The relationship between consumption and wages. The truth behind some of the manufacturing and working passages.

I read Chea...more
Rebecca
A non-fic book on the price we pay by buying cheap crap in this country. It approached the topic very broad and for the scope did an okay job at explaining it, but it seemed sort of second tier when it come to research. Which is actually okay with as I am pretty second tier on everything in my life. ANYWAY. Like the author went to the IKEA factory and headquarters to do recon work on them instead of like say, WAL-MART. But it was okay because we still deal with their products in this country and...more
skein
Jul 22, 2009 skein rated it 5 of 5 stars Recommends it for: anyone ever who has made or will make a purchase.
Shelves: non-fiction, 5-star
If prices are so damn low, why are we all just scraping by?
Shell writes an in-depth exploration of the current state of affairs, ie. globalization, beautifully explained. The consumer has a greater variety of items to choose from than ever before: but each of the choices is identically 'cheap'. Each item is manufactured by what amounts to slave labor; each is built to fall apart again. The only difference is price. - But Shell is far from taking the easy way and squaring the blame on Wal-Mart. W...more
Stephen
Cheap
Cheap: the High Cost of Discount Culture
© 2009 Ellen Ruppel Shell
296 pages

A few weeks ago I read Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, which is a critical history of the 20th-century trend in business toward cheaper goods. The history begins in the 19th century, with the rise of bulk retailing department stores. The existence of a business atmosphere that didn’t prioritize the lowest prices possible seems surreal to someone like myself, who came of age in the era of Wal-Mart triumphan...more
Liz
This book was a solid "eh." I was interested in the premise, an exploration of the downsides of our society's expectation to be able to buy extra-cheap and disposable consumer goods. The case studies, a damning indictment of IKEA and a rather gross portrayal of Asian shrimp farming, were detailed. But I felt some angles weren't fully explored, and the book *definitely* needed better editing and fact-checking. Within two paragraphs in the first four pages, there are references to "Michael Madoff'...more
Kate
A fine discussion of the world economic problems caused by (mostly American) insistance on cheap goods. The history of discount stores was quite interesting as was the alternative-business-model of Wegmans, which unfortunately doesn't exist here in the midwest. I wished there had been some more discussion of social issues of cheap goods, beyond just issues for workers and food supplies - for instance, a bit more about garbage problems and human rights. I think the book is a bit too narrowly focu...more
Sarah
This is a comprehensive and sobering account of contemporary American retail culture, and how discounting has become pervasive, and what the consequences are for our economy and even our health. She delves into the history of discount stores, the psychology of shopping, agricultural practices, and more.

Some of the discussion I'd seen of the book made it sound as if the author was a straight up elitist, blaming ordinary Americans for wanting to save a few dollars. But I don't think that's the ca...more
Liz DeCoster
Ruppel Shell makes a number of interesting assertions and connections in Cheap, but I'm not sure the book successfully tied together into a whole. There are chapters on behavioral economics (why we prefer certain price points, etc.), how cheap design has replaced real craftsmanship (Ikea), and the externalized costs of cheap food (ecological impact of industrial shrimp farming). But the transition from chapter to chapter often seemed jarring, with little tying the topics together. I think the bo...more
Sabiel
Aug 10, 2009 Sabiel rated it 5 of 5 stars Recommends it for: people who are actually surprised that every Bush-era job created has been lost in this downturn
Shelves: read-non-fiction
The timing of this book was really serendipitous, since I was starting to feel a lot of resentment toward all of the shlocky shit cluttering up my life.

My $99 Johnston & Murphy loafers (Made in Brazil) were falling apart after 11 months.*
My $39 Ikea desk's (Made Who Knows Where) particle board top was swelling under the paint on the spot where I usually plop my coffee mug.
My North Face sneakers (Made in China) decided to stop being waterproof.
And I was visiting a friend who lives in a Midwe...more
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Sorry Goodreads is now another Amazon Possession 1 6 Mar 28, 2013 10:15PM  
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  • Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic
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  • Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
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  • To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise
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  • The End of Food
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Ellen Ruppel Shell is a science journalist.
More about Ellen Ruppel Shell...
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“Cheap objects resist involvement. We tend to invest less in their purchase, care, and maintenance, and that's part of what makes them so attractive. Cheap clothing lines—sold at discounters such as Target and H & M—are like IKEA emblems of the "cheap chic" where styles fills in for whatever quality goes lacking. There is nothing sinister in this, no deliberate planned obsolescence. These objects are not designed to fall apart, nor are they crafted not to fall apart. In many cases we know this and accept it, and have entered into a sort of compact. Perhaps we don't even want the object to last forever. Such voluntary obsolescence makes craftsmanship beside the point. We have grown to expect and even relish the easy birth and early death of objects.” 3 likes
“The typical capitalists are lovers of power rather than sensual indulgence, but they have the same tendency to crush and to take tribute that the cruder types of sensualism possess. The discipline of the capitalist is the same as that of the frugalist. He differs from the latter in that he has no regard for the objects through which productive power is acquired. HE does not hesitate to exploit natural resources, lands, dumb animals and even his fellowman. Capital to such a man is an abstract fund, made up of perishable elements which are quickly replaced… The frugalist…stands in marked contrast to the attitude of the capitalist. The frugalist takes a vital interest in his tools, in his land, and in the goods he produces. He has a definite attachment to each. He dislikes to see an old coat wear out, an old wagon break down, or an old horse go lame. He always thinks of concrete things, wants them and nothing else. He desires not land, but a given farm, not horses or cattle and machines, but particular breeds and implements; not shelter, but a home…. He rejects as unworthy what is below standard and despises as luxurious what is above or outside of it. Dominated by activities, he thinks of capital as a means to an end.” 3 likes
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