Book Review – Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

A few months ago in book club, we read Elizabeth Cline’s Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, which focused on what makes cheap clothing so cheap (shoddy construction, labor outsourced to overseas countries, mass production, etc.) and how not just this but treating clothing as disposable commodities hurts us in general. Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture continues the story for everything else out there–cheap furniture, cheap houses, cheap food, cheap everything.

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Shell references the following IKEA commercial as a prime example of how sellers would like us to look at potential purposes.

If a better lamp exists, why not purchase it? You can always leave the old one out on the curb. And if you get tired of the new lamp after a while, nothing’s to stop you from upgrading again. Of course, with this kind of mindset, it’s not so simple for anyone to be happy with a purchase anymore, because they’re always anticipating a newer, better thing from the moment they get it home.

Cheap illustrates how the very fact that the item being purchased is cheap lowers its valuation in the mindset of the buyer.

“Discounting plays many tricks on the human mind, and among the more intriguing is the influence of discounting on our relationship to the purchase itself. Although almost everyone seeks bargains, most of us make the tacit and often unconcious assumption that doing so involves a trade-off of quality for price: Regardless of what the tag or brand claims, we perceive things bought on sales or at a discount as less desirable or efficacious or durable than things for which we paid full price.”

 

In one referenced study, one group of students bought an energy drink at full price, and another bought it discounted at half price. Even though it was the same exact drink, the students who paid half-price got nowhere near the energy effect of those who paid full price. The same was found to be true of discounted painkillers. They had a far less powerful effect on pain than the same ones at full price. So maybe cheap and discounted goods aren’t always such a good deal after all.

Like OverdressedCheap also describes how quality is being cut across the board. Items to be sold are designed to meet a certain price point. This is nothing new, as this book describes the first discount stores and how they really came of age in the 50’s and 60’s. Originally, these were stocked with random items that could be bought cheaply for resale, and then as globalization really picked up stores were able to custom-order anything they wanted to sell, themselves shopping around for the lowest-priced manufacturing even if the materials and labor were a bit suspect. Continuing the IKEA example,

“[IKEA] designs to price, commissioning its suppliers to build not a mug, per se, but a custom-designed 50-cent mug; not a kitchen table and two chairs but a custom-designed kitchen table and two chairs for less than one hundred euros. Every year IKEA challenges its suppliers to lower their prices, and every year it challenges its designers to dream up still cheaper objects to sell, whether new ones or updated versions of classics.”

Another target for selling products with reduced quality are the factory outlets. According to Shell, “Factory outlets are America’s number-one tourist destination, the fastest-growing segment of not only the retail industry but also the travel industry.” The stories of people going on vacation somewhere and then using up much of their precious trip just to shop somewhere and save a couple of bucks is insane. Even with the brand names, she says, most of these outlet stores are no longer places to buy overstocked goods or those that didn’t fully meet quality standards. Instead, they’re selling products that are custom-created to be cheaper varieties of what the name brand represents. It’s like going out for orange juice and ending up with Sunny Delight (which can be cheaper because it contains little actual juice).

Personally, for a long time I wondered how Target could sell Converse shoes at half the price of other stores, before finally realizing that they weren’t the same shoes as all.

“Hundreds of other brands from Levi Strauss to Mercedes-Benz slice and dice their offerings for various markets, selling different products in different types of stores for different prices under the same brand. This practice is pervasive at discount retailers. Chains such as Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Target, and Home Depot have items manufactured “to their specifications,” meaning that the brand name is almost devoid of meaning. A television with a model number available only at Best Buy or Wal-Mart is–no matter its apparent brand–a Best Buy or Wal-Mart television.”

Of course, in my case, I never took a really good look at the shoes in question. I couldn’t have recognized quality shoe construction if it was staring me in the face. And unfortunately, according to Shell most other consumers are just like me thinking that they’re getting a bargain when it’s really something entirely different. And even though the cheap cost adds that devaluation mentioned above.

Shell closes with a call-to-action for all of us to take the true cost of goods into account and to ensure that those true costs are fully disclosed for easier decisions.

“Bargain hunting is a national pastime and a pleasure that I, for one, will not relinquish. But knowing that our purchases have consequences, we can begin to enact change. We can set our own standard for quality and stick to it. We can demand to know the true costs of what we buy, and refuse to allow them to be externalized. We can enforce sustainability, minimize disposability, and insist on transparency. We can rekindle our acquaintance with craftmanship. We can choose to buy or not, choose to bargain or not, and choose to follow our hearts or not, unencumbered by the anxiety that someone somewhere is getting a “better deal.” No longer slaves to the low-price imperative, we are free to make our own choices. As individuals and as a nation, we can turn our attention to what matters, secure in the knowledge that what matters has never been and will never be cheap.”

As for myself, the next time I come across a $5 frying pan at the supermarket, I’ll be much more confident in passing it up and holding out for quality when I actually need one.