“The Egregious Brokenness of
A Review of
The High Cost of Discount Culture.
by Ellen Ruppel Shell.
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
The High Cost of Consumer Culture.
Ellen Ruppel Shell
Hardback: The Penguin Press, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
With a story that parallels Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, Ellen Ruppel Shell’s new book Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture exposes our Western addiction to low priced goods and the toll that this addiction takes on humanity as a whole and on the environment. No stranger to this sort of critical journalism, Shell offered us in her most recent previous book The Hungry Gene, a pointed critique of American obesity. Over the course of Cheap, Shell approaches our craving for low prices from a number of different angles. She begins by laying a historical framework that explains in careful detail how we ended up in our present discount shopping predicament. Shell’s historical context begins with the industrial revolution, through which goods came to be manufactured more quickly and at lower costs. She proceeds to explore the origins of discount stores and here focuses on the retail empires launched by John Wanamaker and Frank Woolworth, names that will likely be familiar to many of our readers. In particular, she credits Wanamaker with – among other retail innovations – the use of the price tag as a standard part of retail operations. The price tag:
[fixed prices] so that pauper and king, insider and naïf, all paid equally, at least in theory. The tags did not foreclose the possibility of negotiation, of course, but they did set an upper limit, making it more difficult for merchants to overcharge and more likely they would set the lowest possible prices to attract customers (14).
These two factors, mass production and the fixing and lowering of prices led to the establishment in the early decades of the twentieth century of a sort of “consumer’s republic” – to use a phrase coined by Harvard University historian Lizabeth Cohen – the culture of which was rooted in ever-greater consumption on the basis of “an enhanced material life and to the promise of greater freedom, democracy and equality” (21-22). Thus, it should not be surprising that in the 1960s and 1970s, the modern discount center would arise out of this culture that was on a trajectory of ever-increasing consumption. These discount centers, epitomized in Wal-Mart, went to great lengths, as Shell describes, to lower their overhead costs in personnel and facilities and to increase their purchasing leverage so that the even lower prices could be passed on to customer.
After providing this historical introduction, Shell – in one of the book’s most fascinating chapters – explores several facets related to the intricate psychology of pricing. She concludes that shopping is a sort of game, which we psychologically play in many ways. Shell utilizes here a revealing quote from Robert Schindler:
Some people play the waiting game, waiting for the price of something to drop. Some people play the radar game in which they scope out bargains throughout the store, often following the same path every time. Some people play the “guess what I paid for it” game, when they buy something just to brag about how little they paid for it. And some people play the Santa Claus game in which they stock up on cheap stuff just to give it away. All these games are terrific at recruiting mental energy. All are great at inducing people to buy. These games, like all games, are about winning. And with discounts everyone feels like a winner no matter how much they lose.
Shell also explores issues related to outlet malls (did you know that many retailers dilute their brand by manufacturing lower quality items specifically for sale in outlet stores?), the demise of durable, crafted goods (a chapter that focuses in large part on big-box store IKEA), food and the influx of cheap goods from China. As many of our readers will know, we are very interested in food and agriculture issues here at the Englewood Review. Thus, I was very interested to read her chapter on food, in which I found very little that has not been addressed in other recent books critiquing modern food systems (by authors such as Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan and Paul Roberts). However, set within the larger context of Cheap, it was important to be reminded that our desires for cheap food are intimately related to the broader escalating consumptive habits of our “discount culture.”
While Shell does a superb job of reminding us of the pathologies of our consumerism and revealing the great depths to which these pathologies reach, her attempts to point us out of this malaise struck me as rather feeble. As she draws to the book’s conclusion, she does astutely recognize a key economic tension under which, I suspect, most of us live:
Cheap is a two-sided coin. Tails is Whole Foods and other chains promoting the oxymoronic ideal of affordable luxury. Heads is Wal-Mart, Target, outlet malls, dollar stores, and other low-price brokers. These supposedly opposing entities actually bolster each other, creating the false impression that quality and everything that goes with it must be expensive. This, of course, rationalizes both business models: If we want quality, we go one way; if we want value, we go the other. What is missing here is what we used to take for granted – what my mother called “the happy medium.”
From this observation, she launches into a case study of the Wegman’s chain of grocery stores, which seem to have had a fair amount of success in moving toward this happy medium. However, save the last two paragraphs in the book where she hastily envisions a revolution waged with the power of our wallets, she offers little in the way of advice for the individual that longs to be out of this cycle of increasing consumption. I highly recommend Cheap as an many-faceted exposé of the egregious brokenness of consumer culture. It would work well as a pre-read to William Cavanaugh’s recent book Being Consumed, which offers a rich theological case both for our transformation from the desires of greed and envy that fuel consumerism and for our becoming more closely connected to the production of goods in our homes and gardens.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com