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Monday, January 28, 2013

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


Cheap: The High Cost of Discount CultureCheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a nonfiction book about our (especially Americans') drives toward bargains driving down living and working standards for the global marketplace. It made me more closely evaluate whether I truly need to purchase something if I want to buy it cheaply, though I'm not certain I would've been swayed if I hadn't started out distrustful of big box retailers. Enlightened self-interest is a nice concept, but too many have day-to-day struggles that make these arguments easy to ignore. I suppose that's the major point of the book, but the author is writing to the wrong audience, then.

The first chapter of the book discusses the rise of discount retailers, and what purchases looked like before their inception. Ellen Ruppel Shell ties in bulk purchasing, Henry Ford and his five dollars a week for workers, low wages and high turnover, manufacturing standards, unions, and current big box stores. It reads as an infodump, and the history's salience doesn't emerge until the last few chapters. It was better than assuming I knew all of that and plowing ahead, but its presentation in a great big, contextless chunk took away from its importance.

Later chapters are devoted to outlets, the advent of the shopping mall, Ikea, cheap food, and Chinese manufacturing.

Shell ends on a hopeful note, discussing what stores like Wegmans and Costco are doing to reverse the damage of the other discount retailers. But she doesn't propose how to push the other stores toward their business model, or how to even the playing field. Our only solution, apparently, is to vote with our wallets. And, if there's no Wegmans or Costco near you, well, too bad. She doesn't discuss the small, locally owned business much, nor does she point us to nonprofits or political organizations.

It's books like this one that have contributed to the climate that bore the Occupy Wall Street movement, and that's lending it credence. It's just too bad the book seems to assume it'll go away if enough people know about it.

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Lorna Raver. Her narration was clear, and sometimes even impassioned. She had a few verbal oddities that made the frequency of the word "price" annoying, and she sounds like a smoker, but, overall, her narration didn't detract from the book.


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