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.
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.
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.
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.
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.