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Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

3.67  ·  Rating Details  ·  2,000 Ratings  ·  401 Reviews
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 obsolesc ...more
Book and Toy, 0 pages
Published September 1st 2009 by Findaway World (first published 2009)
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Aug 09, 2009 Krista rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 13, 2013 Sheridan marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 27, 2009 Emily rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, meridian
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
Aug 09, 2010 Jonny99 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Avra Cohen
Mar 06, 2012 Avra Cohen rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Tiny Pants
Aug 02, 2009 Tiny Pants rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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
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,
Oct 12, 2009 Elizabeth rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
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
May 26, 2015 Leslie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
First off BOO and sit the hell down Whole Foods and IKEA (I knew it). That done, I'll concede that Shell doesn't get to her main points or solution-oriented instructions until the final chapter, a bit after page 200. Cool because the countless streams of information she provided in the preceding chapters, made the answers - all to be done by the individual/reader - obvious. This was not just a book about discount culture; this was a study, a friggin' course, in the subject and so many psychologi ...more
Oct 06, 2009 Andy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 29, 2013 Sarah rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 08, 2013 Susy rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Nov 19, 2013 Janelle rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: abandoned
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
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
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
Nov 03, 2009 Matt rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 19, 2011 Kimberly rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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"
Dec 16, 2009 L rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Joe Kaiser
Dec 25, 2009 Joe Kaiser rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I think the core thesis of this book is her paraphrase of Thomas Gresham:

"The example he used was watered milk. If customers knew the milk is watered, here is no problem; they pay less for it and get precisely what they bargained for. Customers who prefer their milk without water can choose to pay a higher price. No one is cheated, no one is fooled. But when dishonest brokers add water to the milk and sell it for less without telling customers they've watered it, the unwitting public believes it
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."

Sep 15, 2013 Caren rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: adult-nonfiction
This is a book to make you think---think about how you live and the ways in which the surrounding culture has influenced your actions and the implications of those actions for the world. The author has laid out her arguments clearly and well so that the book is a challenge from which you cannot turn away. She begins by looking way back to some of the first discount stores. Before Wal-Mart, there was Wannamakers and Woolworths. These early experiments with "cheap" did away with knowledgeable cler ...more
Mar 04, 2011 Birgit rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Josh Meares
Oct 21, 2012 Josh Meares rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Jul 22, 2009 skein rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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 triumphant
Jul 06, 2010 Liz rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 05, 2009 Kate rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nf, amer-culture
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
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Sorry Goodreads is now another Amazon Possession 1 10 Mar 28, 2013 10:15PM  
  • Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. - How the Working Poor Became Big Business
  • In CHEAP We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue
  • Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping
  • Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
  • Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It
  • All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?
  • Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What
  • This Land Is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation
  • Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic
  • To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise
  • Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America's Independent Businesses
  • The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems
  • The Wal-Mart Effect: How the World's Most Powerful Company Really Works - and How It's Transforming the American Economy
  • The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality
  • To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?
  • Consumed - How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults & Swallow Citizens Whole
  • Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture
  • The Price of Everything: Solving the Mystery of Why We Pay What We Do
Ellen Ruppel Shell is a science journalist.
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“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.” 5 likes
“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.” 4 likes
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