The High Cost of Discount Culture

Book - 2009
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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, America has been transformed by its relentless fixation on low price, instead of durability and craftsmanship. This pervasive yet little examined obsession is arguably the most powerful and devastating market force of our time--the engine of globalization, outsourcing, planned obsolescence, and economic instability in an increasingly unsettled world. Author Shell traces the birth of the bargain as we know it from the Industrial Revolution to the assembly line and beyond, and marshals evidence from a wide range of fields to show the vast effects of this insidious shift: a blighted landscape, escalating debt (both personal and national), stagnating incomes, fraying communities, and a host of other socioeconomic ills.--From publisher description.
Publisher: New York : Penguin Press, 2009.
ISBN: 9781594202155
Characteristics: xix, 296 p. ;,25 cm.


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Feb 04, 2018

In Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, Shell puts forth an argument that is both old-fashioned and revolutionary: you get what you pay for.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, we have transformed from a country that valued craftsmanship and durability to one that values getting as much as we can for as little as we can. Paying any more than the lowest price we can get it for makes us feel cheated, and knowing that someone else got something for less makes us feel like we have "lost". This behavior cannot even be explained as trying to save or hoard for a rainy day; most of the products we buy are of such poor quality that they cannot be counted on to last that long.

As Shell explains, the Big Discount chains (for many of us, Wal-Mart) that we are going to for these "bargains" are in many cases practicing a familiar sleight of hand and luring us in with the loss leaders like apple juice, ketchup and paper towels. In many cases, however, their low, low prices are not even that good, and in some cases, not even the lowest prices that can be found. They do offer convenience and one-stop shopping, but what consumers exchange for that is variety.

Why, then, do we go, not just to Wal-Mart but also to IKEA and H&M, particularly when our spending on food and consumer goods is at a historic low and our disposable income should, theoretically, be higher? In large part because our spending on non-negotiables such as mortgage, transportation and, of course, health care has increased. By design, American wages have been stagnant, and thus our disposal income is lower.

One of the best ways to ensure cheap products is to reduce labor costs. While there are protections in the US to limit how low those costs can go (although those are being diminished with each passing year), Big Discount can- and does- go overseas to find better labor "deals". And they do, particularly in China. (The author makes a strong case that many of the Chinese manufacturing scandals we saw between 2006 and 2008 were a response to American companies incessant push for the lowest prices possible.) While many Chinese laborers are probably genuinely grateful for the employment, labor protections are all but nonexistent and very poorly enforced. When the business community attempted to improve them- particularly around guarantees of consistent wages- they were fiercely opposed by the American Chamber of Commerce in China.

In addition to these topics, Shell also touches on outlets, cheap food and what Adam Smith would think of the pursuit of Cheap. Thankfully, she also includes an example of a company that is decidedly not Cheap but instead focuses on value and loyalty, both from its customers and employees (hint: it's not Whole Foods).

Oct 24, 2016

An interesting look at the issues that exist with "discount culture" Well written and it is unfortunate that many people do not differentiate between cheap and value. Not sure there is any turning back but the book is well worth reading.

Jun 07, 2013

I loved being forced to look into a mirror when I read books. I am fortunate enough to see myself in many of the issues this book explains. The author takes a bright flashlight, shines it into corners and the illumination causes a scattering of cockroaches scurrying away looking for a place to hide. Yet another title, where I hope I accept and re-orient myself based on realizing that if I am not going to be part of the solution, then I am part of the problem.....

Feb 07, 2013

Let's face it, mankind is doomed at its own hands.
I'm glad I will be dead in no more than 60 years.

Aug 24, 2012

I loved this book. It starts off explaining the history of bargain stores so we can see how companies like Wal-Mart and McDonalds came into existence and how they are able to keep their prices so low. We see the environmental damage that is happening across the world and the way that both workers and consumers are affected. If you don't know much about this topic, this book is a great place to start because it explains things in a way that is clear and easy to understand without talking down to the reader.

Oct 12, 2010

anita's recommendation

Oct 16, 2009

I enjoyed this thoughtful book. It takes a consumer's perspective on market forces and explains why we, as consumers, often choose to act (seemingly) against our own self-interest.

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