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

The Penguin Press, 2009. ISBN 978-1-594-20215-5.
Reviewed by Susan M. Andrus
Posted on 02/10/2010

Nonfiction: History/Current Events; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus

We may think that we are getting a bargain shopping at discount stores, but Ellen Ruppel Shell gives a well-researched and convincing argument that quality trumps bargains. When we think we pay lower prices, we may actually be paying more. When we think we benefit, we don't think about those who sacrifice for our benefit. It's difficult to change our ways by paying higher prices for better quality goods and a better world, but pretending that all is well and that we benefit by saving a few pennies only hurts everyone's children and grandchildren.

Shell says, "You have to check prices online or elsewhere before you shop. But consumers tend not to check prices. That's a huge mistake. When it comes to prices, background knowledge is absolutely critical." Once the consumer finds out what the actual cost of a product is, she is often distracted by the reference price, related to markdowns that make it appear that she is getting a great bargain when she really may be paying even more than the retail cost. She says, "We are more likely to buy a mattress—or any number of items—with a high reference price than an item with a lower, more accurate reference price, regardless of its quality or even our real preferences. And as a result of these very high reference prices, our concept of prices of all kinds remains skewed, biasing our thinking on future purchases."

Shell reports that shopping at discount food and outlet stores may take our hard-earned cash faster than if we were to shop where the store values the customer by providing accurate information and high quality goods; values the employee by providing health care, retirement, and living wages; and values the community by making each store representative of the area's needs and culture. She identifies Wegmans, a grocery chain in the Northeast, and COSTCO, a chain that sells items in bulk, as examples of stores that hold these values as opposed to IKEA that uses wood from endangered forests and creates cheap products that fail to hold up.

Shell also identifies the events that led to the American labor movement that increased wages followed by higher prices as good for the consumer. She indicates that our hunger for more cheap products leads to thousands of...tragedies killing and injuring workers in Cambodia, China, and other low-wage countries [that] happen out of sight—and out of mind—of the American and European consumers who purchase the fruits of their labor. All we see is the price, and few of us stop to think about how it got to be so low."

Shell convinced me that I want to continue shopping locally by her criticism of factory farming. She stated that "In 2000 the U.S. Department of Agriculture tracked disease on 895 hog farms, comparing farms with fewer than two thousand animals with those that had more than ten thousand. No one expected the larger farms to be healthier for the animals. Still, it was sobering to learn that when compared with smaller farms, the mega-producers had three times the incidence of mycoplasma pneumonia, six times the cases of swine influenza, and twenty-nine times the cases of a new flu strain. That young pigs tend to die under these circumstances is part of the calculus, mere collateral damage. The survivors live just long enough to stumble over the finish line—and onto our dinner plates."

Shell also critiqued twentieth-century technology such as using chemical fertilizers and herbicides. She acknowledged that we need large farms as the world will continue to want meat and grains, "But it is time to acknowledge that food grown on the factory model is costly—directly in the form of inputs, and indirectly in long-term erosion of our health, environment, and humanity. We need to be more honest about these costs and bear them bravely, rather than externalize them and pass them down to our children or impose them on the poor here or overseas. And we need to build a system in which small farm producers can survive and thrive."

What we can do after reading this well-researched book is to "revisit Adam Smith's concept of enlightened self-interest, the idea that fulfillment of individual wants in the aggregate can serve society's needs." By subscribing to that philosophy, we may pay higher prices for goods, but we also show our support to the companies and employees that value good practices. "In 2005, Wegmans snagged the number-one spot on Fortune magazine's '100 Best Places to Work,' and it has remained fairly close to the top ever since." Wegmans spends about twice what other stores spend on training, benefits for full and part-time workers, retirement, tuition reimbursement, and a college scholarship program. In addition, their employees have a 6% attrition rate compared to more than 30% industry-wide.

Ellen Ruppel Shell is a correspondent for The Atlantic magazine and has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, National Geographic, Time, Discover, Seed, and other publications. She is the author, most recently, of The Hungry Gene, a groundbreaking exposé of the obesity pandemic, published in six languages. She is a professor of journalism at Boston University, where she co-directs the graduate program in science journalism. Learn more on her website.

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