There it is, right in front of you on the shelf at a local shop: the gadget you've been eyeing for months. But, you lament, it's marked at full price. Maybe it would be smarter to go home and do some comparison shopping online — a discounter might have it for considerably less. After all, who among us can resist the flush of achievement, the heady excitement that is getting a great deal?
But there's more to our infatuation with low-cost goods than frugality or a sense of competitiveness. We're psychologically hard-wired to seek out bargains, and retailers use this fact to manipulate us into buying all the cheap trinkets we can fit into our homes.
In her book "Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture," author Ellen Ruppel Shell shines what may be an uncomfortably bright light on the many ways in which we engage in a dangerous game of chicken with the businesses that sell us our stuff.
For example, how many of us regularly ask ourselves questions like this: With consumers paying as little as possible for all manner of goods, from shrimp to Scandinavian furniture, who's really picking up the tab? The cost, says Ruppel Shell, ultimately falls not just on the distant Third-World laborers who create these products at rock-bottom wages but also retail employees right here in America who are among the lowest-paid workers in the nation. When we demand $5 T-shirts and 99-cent picture frames, retailers respond by cutting their own costs and passing the problem on to somebody else.
Furthermore, we're not always getting the great deals for which we so proudly pat ourselves on the back. Retailers have learned that they can either sell a few sweaters at full price for $49, or sell loads of them on “clearance” for $99, marked down from an imaginary “original price” of $199.
Even the bountiful, disorganized shelves of America's beloved outlet malls aren't what they seem: Ruppel Shell reveals that many of these goods are simply lower-quality versions of the products sold at a brand's full-priced stores.
And aside from the appalling changes that our obsession with cheap food has wrought on agriculture and nutrition, there is once again that nagging problem of quality and safety.
“How are consumers to know whether the lower price of chicken breasts at Walmart signify a good deal on a superior product, or a bad deal on an inferior product?” the author asks.
Surprisingly, this is one of few references to the W-word in Ruppel Shell's book. Taking a sharp turn away from using Walmart as an easy target, Ruppel Shell goes into particular detail in regard to the environmental impacts of IKEA's eye-popping prices. The Swedish retailer prides itself on its eco-friendly qualities including energy-saving flat-pack shipping and legally harvested timber approved by an in-house team of forestry experts.
But for all of its truly laudable efforts in sustainability, argues Ruppel Shell, IKEA is ultimately a peddler of disposable goods, encouraging consumers to switch from well-made goods to flimsy junk.
“Rather than being passed down from generation to generation, accumulating nostalgic heft, furniture was cut loose from its history,” Ruppel Shell says. “For scores of millions of IKEA customers the world over, heirlooms gradually became obsolete. Why settle for dusty hand-me-downs when the stylish and new cost a pittance?”
Some readers may get bogged down in the initial, highly detailed chapters that provide a brief history of the retail industry and illuminate how the discounting game got its start. But these chapters provide the groundwork for what becomes an utterly engrossing, entertaining and at times horrifying look into the mirror at our own habits and how we perpetuate a cycle of damage to laborers, communities, customer service, craftsmanship and the environment.
And though Ruppel Shell's work is more an analysis than an answer, the author does eventually suggest what readers will self-consciously suspect all along: that fixing the problem is up to each of us.