Ellen Ruppel Shell
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Buy *Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture* by Ellen Ruppel Shell online

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture
Ellen Ruppel Shell
The Penguin Press
320 pages
July 2009
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Who doesn’t love a bargain? Words like sale, half off, and two for one are guaranteed to make us sit up and pay attention, and are more likely than not to pull us into the store that offers these great deals. The question asked in Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture is: when is a bargain not a bargain?

According to a recent story on my local news, these ‘hard economic times’ bring out the frugal in shoppers. Hundreds of them were buying a $200 one-cup coffee maker that was prominently displayed as a sale item at a local department store. The store spokesman explained that “people realize it’s going to save them money because they won’t use as much coffee.”


When Ellen Ruppel Shell writes about the high cost of discount culture, she must have these same savvy shoppers in mind. The truly frugal and sensible thing to do is to make only one cup of coffee in the machine you already own, yet the never-pay-full-price mindset that has taken root in recent years bypasses logic. For a host of reasons, we ignore the dollars we spend while congratulating ourselves on the pennies we save.

Guess what? Manufacturers and retail stores like it that way. Our illogical, emotion-driven consumption is supported by the use of psychology in marketing. We’re the suckers who are born every minute, and it isn’t just our bank balances that suffer because we’re gullible. Exploited workers, economic chaos, and environmental devastation are just a few of the more visible signs that buying cheap is a lot more expensive than we realize.

Shell begins with the history of cheap culture, leading us through the innovations – mass production and serve-yourself stores — that promised affordable products for all. While it would seem that the process levels the field and raises the standards of living at least in the U.S., the dirty truth is that cheap goods are possible through the exploitation of workers (often in foreign countries, which makes it easier for us to ignore the real price of discounts) and the stifling of creativity. The terrible irony is that we aren’t getting bargains at all. We’re simply feeding the cycle of economic inequality while spending our hard-earned paychecks on shoddy merchandise that is meant to fall apart quickly so that manufacturers can sell us another cheap gizmo. As Shell puts it,

“In the Age of Cheap we are… blindly reliant on the seller to wring out the best price from his suppliers and to reliably pass those savings on to us. Retailers, and in particular discount retailers, reliably betray this trust.”
But what about those low, low prices? Surely it’s a bargain when toothpaste, regularly priced at $4 a tube, is marked down by 50 percent. When is the last time you went into a discount store, bought only the sale item you truly needed, and walked out? Or do you find yourself in a state of Gruen transfer? That is, do you go in for the toothpaste and then lose focus, wandering the store “in a sort of daze, aimless, and vulnerable to the siren call of come-ons of every sort?”

That, my friends, is what those low, low prices are really about.

Cheap is a look inside the business of retail scalping that will leave you infuriated but also a bit wiser about how and why we fall for the scams. Have you ever noted the number of rebates available and wondered why the manufacturer doesn’t just lower the price? Shell explains it. Want to know how Wal-Mart can afford to sell the cheapest organic produce in town? The explanation is right here in this handy book.

While most of Cheap reveals the tricks of the marketing trade and exposes the various psychological maneuvers used to manipulate shoppers, it also includes the more respectable and ethical practices of businesses like Wegman’s. While there’s no Top Ten List of Ways to Make Them Stop, Shell’s revealing investigation makes it possible for readers to understand how we are being led by the nose, and maybe even to avoid victimization. Awareness is everything in this business of buy-and-sell. In the end, consumers do have the power to determine their own spending fate. The lessons we learn from Cheap really are a bargain.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Deborah Adams, 2009

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