The Well Spent Book Club: Cheap

The new running shoes my UPS guy delivered a couple weeks ago were $119.99. A screaming good deal given their original $160 retail price, right? Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture forced me to reconsider a lot of things – including the fact that I have no earthly idea what a pair of running shoes should cost, and therefore, no real idea whether $119.99 (down from $160) is a good deal, a ripoff, or somewhere in between.

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Shell’s research on consumer habits, the psychology of pricing, and the impact of living in a culture of cheap retail are powerful and eye-opening – maybe in ways that we’re a little uncomfortable with. Reading “Chapter 4: The Outlet Gambit,” for example, it’s hard not to feel duped by branding and pricing strategy. “Come to the outlet mall,” retailers implore, “and help us get rid of overstock – it’s a win-win!” The reality is that every piece of that experience is carefully groomed to stroke our smart-shopper egos, and make us think we’re finding great deals. As Shell argues, we are active – even enthusiastic – participants in the discount retail game, never realizing that our deal-driven consumer culture is keeping corporations laughing all the way to their offshore accounts. Prices fool us, but as JCPenney learned during Ron Johnson’s failed tenure as CEO, we want them to.

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The costs of buying cheap are serious – and according to Shell, something most shoppers barely acknowledge or understand, let alone pay for directly. The victims of malls (and the satellite stores that surround them) are not only independent shops but the downtown streets that used to be community centers. Developers have started tapping into this loss by recreating downtowns in the suburbs – outdoor shopping areas built around phony streets and faux-vintage architecture. The human and environmental costs go well beyond the growth of low-wage retail work and the gas it takes to drive around the mall ring road looking for a place to park that isn’t too far from the food court. Cheap means overseas, and overseas means production with less stringent (and less likely to be enforced) labor and environmental regulations. American consumers aren’t directly demanding unsafe working conditions and unregulated pollution, but as Shell points out, we might as well be.

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I have no idea if $119.99 was a fair price for these running shoes – and after reading Cheap, I’m not even sure the concept of a “fair price” has any real meaning. Maybe I pulled one over on the manufacturer, maybe I did the retailer a favor by freeing up inventory space, or maybe I’m just one more eager sponsor of what Shell calls the “bad loan” of modern retail – a shaky foundation of sales and low prices that contributes to long-term economic, environmental, and social destabilization.

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Since this is a community discussion, here are a few other issues to think about:

  • Shell says she’s not making an elitist argument. Do you buy it?
  • She notes, “the craving for bargains springs from something much deeper. Low price is an end and a victory in itself, a way to wrestle control from the baffling mystery that is retail.” That short section uses a number of terms we don’t generally associate with shopping, especially shopping for clothes – craving, victory, wrestle, control, baffling, mystery – so what do they mean in this context? Does that perspective ring true?
  • Thinking about approaches to buying clothes that favor quality over quantity (capsule wardrobes, the French Wardrobe idea), are those opting out of the system Shell describes, or just rationalizing our enthusiastic participation in it?
  • Did reading the book change your shopping/buying decisions? Are you a different consumer after Cheap than you were before?

For October’s community read, we’ll tackle Rachel Louise Snyder’s Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade. Snyder’s international narrative of the cultural and economic power of jeans starts with cotton fields in Central Asia and factories in Southeast Asia and ends with design houses in Italy and boutiques in SoHo.

J.D. is an environmental consultant in the New England region. He has worked on issues of sustainable development and green consumption for more than a decade, advising companies in the US and Southeast Asia.

  • rita

    First – thank you for starting this book club! I hadn’t heard of Cheap before the announcement and am so glad to have read it… my very first time participating in a book club! And, Fugitive Denim is one of my very favorite retail/product based books and I think your readers will love it!

    1. I agree that Shell’s argument is not elitist. Or at least that that isn’t the point of her argument. The consumption of things is the same as the consumption of food – at first, the need for organic produce and whole, unprocessed foods was an elitist ideal, but now it has trickled down into the mass market and that will likely (hopefully) help the greater good. Currently, it does seem that conscious consumption of goods (buying American-made, fair trade, ethical, etc.) is an elite ideal, but, in my opinion, that’s because it is the so-called elite that keep talking about it! (not slamming anyone here – I also run a blog that features American-made products!) We read all about the people who buy multiple pairs of Red Wing boots b/c they are cool and made in the USA, but what about the workers that buy one pair every ten years, wear them daily, but don’t have a blog or instagram account?

    Ultimately, though, I think this is still ok – because when people give something a voice, it can live on… and if groups that spend more money (and have influence!) are focused on buying better, it will become easier for everyone to buy better.

    3. Changing your approach to consumption can mean both things – opting out of the system AND rationalizing your participation in it. Consumption is a behavior, not a belief or a process, so it’s something that you must manage on a daily basis – I’d guess that most of us waver back and forth between the two.

    4. I can’t say that the book has changed my shopping decisions, because I was already on this path and focused on managing my consumption. But it has definitely strengthened my belief in what I’m doing, and armed me with the information to better communicate the importance of it all.

    so excited to read what everyone else thinks! thanks again, wellspent team!

  • Cory

    Great post! And I agree 100% with Rita’s assessment. I couldn’t have said it better myself. I am interested to see what other commenters have to say.

  • Chris

    Just finished reading the book last night. I can’t say it will affect my purchasing too much. I was already aware of many of the issues she discusses from blogs, news articles and documentaries on the subject, so I felt the book was more of a reinforcement of what I already knew rather than something totally new. Perhaps for the uninitiated, the book would be more eye-opening.

    I think the book makes a good case for how cheap goods can be harmful, but I was disappointed that it didn’t spend more time talking about solutions. Aside from vague suggestions on being a conscious consumer and “voting with your wallet” at the very end of the book, I felt that there should have been a couple more chapters on exactly how to overcome our collective addiction to cheap goods and undo the damage that has already been done. Maybe this is an unfair criticism, since the author may have only intended for the book to be a starting point – an awareness-builder rather than a call to action – but nevertheless that’s how I felt after reading it.

    In theory I support buying quality over quantity (e.g. French/capsule wardrobe), but in reality it’s often hard to know whether you’re buying quality, or buying something overpriced. Just because something is expensive or made in America doesn’t mean it is made ethically/sustainably, or that it is of high quality. And just because something is inexpensive or made in the third world doesn’t mean isn’t high quality or ethically made. I really wish the book would have discussed more specifically about how to determine if something is cheap vs quality, how to find out if something is ethically/sustainably made, how to know if a business is good for your community and should be supported, etc. I didn’t feel like I’m much better-equipped to make informed purchases after having read it.

    Currently, consumers don’t really have the data to make informed purchasing decisions, even when they want to. Country-of-origin labels are pretty much meaningless. Most people don’t have the time to exhaustively research everything they’re potentially going to buy (certainly not every little thing they pick up at the grocery store). In the same way that food producers are required to provide detailed ingredients & nutrition facts, maybe we should require every manufacturer to provide more information about where/how each good is made right on the packacking. Some already do this voluntarily (e.g. high-end denim that mentions exactly where the cotton was grown, where the fabric was made, where the jeans were sewn). I don’t know if it’s realistically feasible for all manufacturers to do this, but clearly something has to change or the average consumer will just keep making the same uninformed buying decisions.

    Beyond giving consumers the information to make better buying decisions, they also need the means to make those better puchases. I don’t know if “elitism” is the right word, but I do think there’s merit to the argument that voting with your wallet is a lot easier when you have disposable income. While the cost of food/clothing/electronics might be at an all time low, other necessities like health care and education are skyrocketing in cost while real incomes are stagnant or even decreasing. Buying cheap health care isn’t an option, so consumers are forced to make cuts elsewhere in their budget and turn to cheap food/clothes. If we can control the costs of health care/education/housing/transportation/etc then consumers won’t have to buy those cheap food/clothing items.

  • MythReindeer

    Like the others, my spending habits were already headed in this general direction; Cheap just strengthened my resolve.

    What the book also did is made me realize how…if not difficult, then inconvenient NOT buying “cheap” is. I recently tried to find a non-chain drug store, and I live in a pretty large city. “Tried” is definitely the operative word because there are only a few and they certainly are not as close as CVS and Walgreens. The common thread on Yelp reviews of the independent stores was that they are great businesses worth supporting…but they charge more. It never fails to be mentioned. And when the supposedly better alternatives are less convenient, those with out means (money, transportation, time) are essentially forced into supporting this system. It isn’t a question of “elitism,” but simply one of means. The culture of cheap becomes a necessity for many, at least in terms of maintaining a lifestyle that we have collectively decided is good.

    I think the terms used in that rather insightful passage reveal something important: a great deal of shopping is not rational, no matter what you tell yourself afterward. Even as a biologist I end up rolling my eyes at some internet talk regarding “primal drives” and whatnot, but we are wired to want something for nothing (or a lot for a little, as it may be). Since we don’t make the clothes we crave–or even know much about their making–we don’t know what we’re giving. That’s the mystery. There wouldn’t be an entire academic field based around pricing if it were simple and logical.

    I don’t know if my supposedly more thoughtful clothing purchases are allowing me to buy out of that system because I don’t know if I can, not entirely. Either it’s difficult to find a good alternative, or I am ill-equipped to even know where or how to look. Somewhere along the way, I support something done on the cheap because can anything be truly free of it? I guess this is where we “do the best we can,” and rationalize ourselves to sleep. Cheap is wonderfully educational but in some ways almost depressing.

  • Cory

    @Chris: This sound like a worthwhile book project. I am a writer and editor, so if you want to collaborate…

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  • JD

    JD here –

    Glad you enjoyed the book, and thanks to everyone for sharing your thoughts! Some quick reactions –

    @Rita – If I can connect two points you made, I think you’re absolutely right that consumption is a learned behavior, and that the “elite” label may just be a function of how easy it’s become to share and speak with others about our consumer choices. I’ve had enough conversations with folks on Reddit to realize that justifying (sometimes just mentioning!) your own choices often makes people assume you’re judging theirs harshly.

    @Chris – I was also disappointed by the lack of actionable recommendations, but I think you’re probably right that this was meant to be a consciousness-raising book more than anything else. That’s sort of her M.O., or at least it was in her book about the obesity industry and the new book she’s writing about the value of hands-on work in an information economy.

    @MythReindeer – I have close, intimate knowledge of that primal drive to buy stuff! Before I bought a pair of boots last fall (from Alden, a family-owned company in Massachusetts), I probably spent two months looking at pictures and reading reviews. I probably called it research or something, but if I’m being honest with myself, I was just chomping at the bit to buy them. I think it speaks to your first point, which is that it’s definitely harder in some ways to opt out of the “cheap” system (finding an independent drug store is a great example), but it’s also increasingly easy to gather information and connect to like-minded individuals. MFA (the style forum I moderate on Reddit) has regular threads on capsule wardrobes, buying fewer higher-quality items, etc – it’s really become a resource for folks who might want to move beyond cheap. Although at the same time, there are just as many threads about building a wardrobe for an internship on a $300 budget. It’s a big tent.

    Thanks again for your thoughts everyone, and I’m looking forward to tackling Fugitive Denim in a few weeks!

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