Like many young couples, my husband and I furnished our first home at Ikea and Target, but a year ago, I decided I wanted to start upgrading to "grown-up furniture," starting with our bookcases. I dreamed of solidly crafted bookcases that would last the rest of our lives. So when we moved to Raleigh, we sold our cheap Ikea bookcases, gave away enough books to be able to downsize to two bookcases, and then I went shopping.
Cue reality. Even though I am definitely a grown-up, I cannot afford grown-up furniture. Two hardwood bookcases from grown-up stores like Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn cost upwards of $800. Ouch!
For a year, I kept an eye out at Craigslist and thrift stores while one corner of our livingroom was decorated with moving boxes labeled "Erin's books" and "Michael's books." (Not exactly ideal when you need one of said books.) Every now and then, I came across nice bookcases, but never a matching pair. Our choices were looking slim: choke up the $800 for a nice set of bookcases or head back to Ikea.
Ellen Ruppel Shell's new book, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture begins with a similar story. In need of new dress boots for a New Year's Eve party, Shell headed to her local shoe store where she drooled over a pair of leather boots from Italy that were well out of her price range before settling on "some Chinese imports selling for about one quarter of the price." After wearing the "chunky and so uncomfortable" boots to the party, Shell tossed them to the back of her closet and never wore them again. The experience led her to wonder...
about all those cheap gloves and socks and T-shirts and "Guess how much I saved?" gizmos cluttering my family's life. How much of this stuff had we used once or not at all and then packed away, given away, thrown away?...And why was there such a scarcity of things reasonably priced? It seemed that almost all consumer goods were cheap, like the Chinese boots, or extravagant, like the Italian boots. Where, I wondered, was the solid middle ground that offered safe footing not so very long ago?To answer these questions, Shell talks with psychologists, economists, farmers, and historians and visits retail stores of all shapes and sizes. She begins her book by exploring the history of discounting - humans have always been bargain hunters, but until fairly recently, they didn't expect to be able to buy products at deep discounts year round. Shell also examines the psychology behind why we are so drawn to low prices and the irrationality of the human mind when it comes to money, such as in this fascinating study called the Ultimatum Game:
The game is between two players who interact only once, so reciprocation - or "payback" is not at stake. The first player is given a sum of money - for simplicity's sake let's call it $10 - and asked to divide it between himself and the other player. He can divvy it up any way he chooses, but if the second player rejects the division, neither player gets anything. If the second player accepts the deal, the first player takes his self-determined cut and the second player gets the rest...Most players decline to take an offer below $3 and some refuse anything less than a fifty/fifty split.Shell then takes an in-depth look at discounters, from the outlet mall to the fast food restaurant and from Walmart to Ikea, and their far-reaching effects on the environment, labor both at home and abroad, and the state of society in general. She especially mourns the loss of the craftsman and the decline of high quality goods, explained by Gresham's law: Imagine that there are two types of milk on the market - high-quality whole milk and watered-down milk. The whole milk would of course sell for more than the watered-down milk, and customers who prefer the whole milk can choose to pay the higher price.
But when dishonest brokers add water to the milk and sell it for less without telling customers they've watered it, the unwitting public believes it is getting a great deal. If enough dishonest merchants water their milk, more and more customers will forget what normal milk tasts like and buy only the cheaper - watered down - variety. Eventually, honest brokers are forced to water their milk too or get pushed out of business. Whole milk becomes no longer available, and eventually the price of watered milk goes up. Good money and good milk are driven out.Consider again my bookcases. After a year of searching, I finally found two bookcases on Craigslist. They're a little shorter than I wanted, but I love them anyway, and once we sand and repaint them, I think they'll look beautiful in our livingroom.
A few days after we got them, a friend noticed that our "wall of boxes" had transformed into two bookcases. When I told her I'd gotten them off Craigslist, she asked, "Did you get a good deal?"
"I think so for the quality of the bookcases," I said. "I could have gotten something cheaper at Ikea, but these are much nicer..."
And then I started wondering. They look like they're made of oak, but are they really? They feel really sturdy and well-constructed, but so does my Ikea entertainment center. How can I tell if they're nice or not? As a child of discount America, I have no idea what constitutes quality because I've had very little experience with it. I'm used to watered down milk: "shoddy clothes, unreliable electronics, wobbly furniture, and questionable food have become the norm."
Shell believes that we will learn from the latest economic meltdown "the hard lesson that we cannot grow a country and a future on a steady diet of 'great deals.'" She concludes with this final paragraph that I love because it ties in so beautifully with my own definition of a Conscious Shopper:
We have the power to enact change and to chart a pragmatic course. That power resides not only in the voting booth but in our wallets. Bargain hunting is a national pastime and a pleasure that I, for one, will not relinquish. But knowing that our purchases have consequences, we can begin to enact change. We can set our own standard for quality and stick to it. We can demand to know the true costs of what we buy, and refuse to allow them to be externalized. We can enforce sustainability, minimize disposability, and insist on transparency. We can rekindle our acquaintance with craftsmanship. We can choose to buy or not, choose to bargain or not, and choose to follow our hearts or not, unencumbered by the anxiety that someone somewhere is getting a "better deal." No longer slaves to the low-price imperative, we are free to make our own choices. As individuals and as a nation we can turn our attention to what matters, secure in the knowledge that what matters has never been and will never be cheap.I'd love to pass my slightly used copy of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture on to another reader. If you're interested, leave a comment here by next Tuesday. I'll randomly select a recipient and will announce the results on my blog post next Wednesday.