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Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

3.71  ·  Rating details ·  2,488 ratings  ·  458 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
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published July 2nd 2009 by Penguin Press HC, The (first published 2009)
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Aug 02, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 20, 2011 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
Aug 09, 2010 rated it it was ok
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 predecessor c ...more
Jul 17, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Oct 25, 2011 rated it it was ok
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 quality of life. sh
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
Avra Cohen
Mar 23, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Tiny Pants
Jul 30, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Todd Martin
Dec 29, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: finance, business
“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,
May 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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 07, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Glen Leavens
Oct 20, 2017 rated it really liked it
Borrowing this book from the library makes me frugal and not cheap. This is an eye opening book on how low costs are hurting all of us. The author makes several good points on why we should look for value and craftsmanship and why value and craftsmanship is increasingly hard to find. Hard to argue with a race to the bottom. Her positive example of Wegmans is an interesting contrast to the others in the book.
Sep 22, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
May 21, 2013 rated it it was ok
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
Aug 29, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Sep 14, 2009 rated it liked it
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
Oct 26, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Sep 20, 2013 rated it liked it
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
Brian Roberts
Jan 07, 2010 rated it it was ok
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
Dec 16, 2009 rated it liked it
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 from ...more
Jan 19, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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"
Jon Terry
Important ideas to take into consideration. Sometimes I was bored with the narrative though. Major takeaways:

- The back-in-the day shopping scenario consisted of sellers and buyers who knew each other, belonged to the same community, and relied on each other, and therefore needed to trust each other. If someone developed a reputation of trying to cheat, no one would do business with them. There still exist situations like this today, and a tourist to such a place will not receive the same treat
May 17, 2019 rated it it was ok
What I wanted this book to be was a concise exposé of unethical brands and cheap products, wrapped up with a practical suggested course of action for concerned consumers to follow.

Maybe it's not the book's fault, but this is not what it was. Shell deals more with the historical origins and economic results of "discount culture", and exhaustively so. Much of this content was simply of no interest to me (though perhaps others may find it more stimulating).

I do feel challenged to quit looking at a
Jul 01, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: books-i-heard
A book I probably would have had trouble with in paper but since it was on audio and listened to in 30 minute chunks or so it breezed by. Shell has a lot of history to get through regarding how we got to our current state of discount retail (as of about 2008, since the book was originally published in 2009). Suffice to say, everything is poorly made by an underpaid and abused worker in a developing country and that in turn drives down wages and labor advances in the United States. It's a whole v ...more
Shell’s book takes a broad view of the American (and globalizing) fixation with “cheap”, and thus serves as a good primer on the topic. Each chapter reminded me of a more in-depth book I have read (or want to read) on the example she’s detailing.

I do wish the book has spent more time discussing the psychology of consumerism and our fixation on cheap. Shell introduces her book with examples from her own life where she bought something because she thought she was getting a good deal. Her anecdotal
Sep 15, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
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
Jul 11, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 05, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: amer-culture, nf
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
Sara Kaiser
Dec 25, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
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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.” 8 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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