An unflinching look at America’s dangerous fascination with ‘cheap’
Even before I’d finished Ellen Ruppel Shell’s new book Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, I decided I should review it on Pocketmint. I then spent two weeks artfully procrastinating on doing so.
Apparently I have a block on writing formal ‘book reviews’. I have no trouble discussing books, verbally and informally, but the moment I start trying to write about them I seize up over doing it properly.
So this is not a book review, it’s a
brief casual monologue about a book I thought was worthwhile. Right? Okay then. (Er, maybe not so brief. Oops.)
The general premise of Cheap is neatly encapsulated in the title: the ‘discount culture’ that pervades America today has a number of costs, borne by both the naive consumer (in the form of shoddy goods and false bargains) and the world at large (in the form of environmental destruction and human rights violations).
Cheap is not a polemic; rather it is a measured, deeply researched examination of a cultural phenomenon — one I suspect most Americans today take for granted.
The first quarter or so of the book is devoted primarily to tracing the roots of the ‘discount store’ and related phenomena, all the way back to the first example of mass production two hundred years ago. (No, not cars — guns.)
If I have one criticism, it’s that I felt that the biographical details of discount-store pioneers occasionally dipped into tedium. Nevertheless, the broader historical perspective was illuminating. Have you ever imagined shopping in a store with no price tags? Yeah, neither have I. But before John Wanamaker came along, that’s just how things were done. Here’s another, more recent example of cultural shift:
President George W. Bush’s stirring call to spend after the fall of the Twin Towers in New York City on 9/11 seemed surreal to those Americans who recalled President Carter’s 1979 “sweater speech,” in which he donned a cardigan and asked Americans to turn down their thermostats to conserve energy for the sake of national prosperity and security.
(This sentence alone sent me scurrying off to learn more about Jimmy Carter, a president I barely remember. The man put solar panels on the White House! In 1979! And then Ronald Reagan came along and took them down again. /facepalm)
Having covered the history of America’s adoption of the discount mindset, Shell turns to the source of that mindset — the psychology of price.
Sadly, even when we know we’re being tricked, the tricks still work: people respond differently to a $9.99 price tag than to a $10 one. We’ll pay more for a sale sweater with a ‘regular’ price of $249 than one with a ‘regular’ price of $89, even if we are absolutely certain that the $249 is inflated.
And sometimes we’re oblivious to the stratagem in play. I always assumed outlet malls were rurally situated because of lower real estate costs. But no! It’s a ploy: once you’ve driven an hour or two you’re invested in the trip and therefore will buy more to justify the time and effort you’ve already spent.
In many cases, we’ve been conditioned to think something is a bargain when it really is nothing of the sort. You think Wal-Mart has ‘always low prices’, right? Chalk one up to the marketing team if so: Wal-Mart has higher than average prices on a third of its merchandise. And on those items for which prices are lower? A third of them offer savings of two cents or less.
Meanwhile, the rise of discount stores has lowered American wages; where department store staff salaries and benefits once totaled 18% of sales, today’s discounters spend a mere 6 or 7% of sales on their staff.
Later chapters move beyond the cost to the individual consumer and into the realm of the cost to people in foreign nations (who are intrinsic to the supply chain) and the cost to the health of the planet.
IKEA had begun to lose its luster for me even before I read this book, but the chapter in which Shell tours IKEA headquarters in Sweden was enough to finish the job. Artfully interspersed with the marketing-approved statements from the CEO and various employees is solid research that debunks IKEA’s claims of environmentalism and spotlights the devil’s bargain we’ve made by embracing mass-produced cheap furniture over careful craftsmanship.
And then there’s the chapter on the dangers of cheap food. I gave up meat twenty years ago, so the description of what the pork industry calls “PSE” (for “pale soft exudative”) left me shuddering but secure in my moral stance. Unfortunately for me, however, most of the chapter is devoted to the environmental deterioration and human degradation resulting from the explosion of Asian shrimp farms. Shrimp is a significant component of my diet, in part precisely because it’s become so cheap. This presents a dilemma I have yet to resolve.
Shell is not advocating that we all spend profligately in service of craftsmanship and social or environmental responsibility. On the contrary, she admonishes Whole Foods for contributing to the false dichotomy of value vs. quality. “What is missing here,” she says, “is what we used to take for granted — the happy medium. Consumers are left to choose between discount retailers whose practices they find questionable and high-end stores whose prices they cannot afford.”
Who gets it right? According to Shell’s book: Wegmans, a small chain of grocery stores in the Northeastern U.S. I’ve never been to one, but I read the description hungrily. (If any Wegmans shoppers read this blog, I’d love to know what you think of it.)
The cost of change, in fact, may not be nearly as prohibitive as we think. A University of Massachusetts economist calculates that, for example, increasing the wages of Mexican apparel workers by 30% would raise the price of a shirt in the United States by just 1.2%. Would you pay an extra quarter on your $20 shirt to make that kind of difference in the life of a Mexican sweatshop workers? I would, if I could trust that my quarter was actually going to Mexican workers and not to some corporate CEO.
Cheap is hot off the presses with a publication date of July 2009 and statistics as recent as 2008. Shell talks frankly about the recession we’re experiencing right now, and shows some of the ways in which America’s fascination with ‘cheap’ has contributed to our current problems. Hard though it may be in a time of rising prices and falling wages, I believe it’s good to be mindful of hidden costs, and this book is a great way to start.