Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Book Review: Cheap

Another book review from The Conscious Shopper

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.

43 comments:

Katie @ makingthishome.com said...

My husband and I often talk about this exact topic. Your review sounds fascinating, and I'd love to read and pass on this book.
Thanks.
Katie

Elizabeth said...

sounds right up my alley. I'm the one who's willing to pay more for organic and eco-friendly products, whereas my husband needs a professionally written essay as to the pros and cons of doing so. This would be yet more fodder in my argumentative arsenal.

Tameson said...

I read this book last year. Very eye-opening. Great review! I may print this out for the librarian (I read a library book) to read.

The 4 Bushel Farmgal said...

What a great review. I have always dreaded the effect of bigbox and "cheap" stores on our economy (and life in general).

I would like to be entered in your giveaway, and would pass it on after reading it.
Thank you.

thesimplepoppy said...

Great post. Cheap really is...cheap. When I took fashion engineering I remember my teacher saying that clothes often live an entire lifetime getting kicked around the factory BEFORE they even get to the store.

JAM said...

Great review - thanks! I just requested it from the library so don't need to be in the giveaway, but thanks for posting it - sounds like a great book.

Sandy said...

This sounds like a fascinating study! Thanks for the opportunity!

Jessica said...

I would love to read this book. And I'd be happy to pass it on when I'm done. Thanks!

Jessica

kmcelwee said...

I've struggled with this same thing myself as I make the transition from all of my hand-me-down furniture to "better" stuff. Would love to read this book! Thanks for offering the giveaway!

Wonderer said...

oh, sounds like a great read. hubby and I, after 10 years together, 3 children, 3 cross-country moves, still don't have much 'grown-up' furniture and are trying to find our balance between quality and affordability.

Renee J said...

This sounds like a good book. I love a chance to read it.

knittingwoman said...

An interesting topic but it also makes me wonder why fancier looking, more expensive, whether or not better made, is considered more grownup. Interesting isn't it how main stream society grades us on our adult status by our possessions.
The other thing that shopping on craig's list does besides allow you to get a "good deal" and what you want, it also reduces your footprint because you are getting second hand.

The Raven said...

Sounds like a great book, and I really like your personal, real-life review of it. I'd love to read it and then pass it on. (How about sign it (with your blog) and then the next person can do the same, etc.?)

Jaime said...

Wonderful, thought-provoking post. Thank you.

C Allyn said...

I really loved what you had to say and I laughed at the question,
"did you get a good deal".
Words my grannie always asked me.
She loved shopping.
Just yesterday I was contemplating what motivates us to buy this or that. As for craftsman furniture.
My dad was a carpenter, finishing.
I recall the work that went into his houses.
His father, also a carpenter made me a cedar chest which I still have. Great write up. Answered a lot of my questions.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

@knittingwoman - Its not so much fancier looking or expensive that I would say equals grown up furniture, but rather durability and quality. The ikea bookcases we had before were crap, but our ikea entertainment center is pretty nice and I have no plans to replace it anytime soon. But it's made of particleboard, so I couldn't sand down and restain it if it were to get scratched or damaged. From a sustainability point of view, I found Shell's furniture chapter very interesting. Is it more sustainable to make particleboard furniture that utilizes all parts of the tree but isn't as strong or durable, or is it more sustainable to use hardwood which lasts a long time and can be sanded down but only uses a small part of the tree? Interesting questions to think about.

@The Raven - I like that idea! Have you heard of Bookcrossing? Similar idea.

Donna said...

I'd love to read this book! I can't tell you how many times I've headed out looking for a new whatever, willing to pay more for quality and durability, but all I can find is cheap junk, and the next level up is cheap junk with more features. I have better luck finding something well made at the Salvation Army! Does the author have any advice on where to find something well made?

Julia (Color Me Green) said...

so true about not always being able to tell what's quality and what's not!

Wendy said...

I'm old enough to actually remember that the Made in China label used to be synonymous with poorly made items. It's kind of funny that now everything is made in China, and we think we're getting a bargain because it costs less. There was a time (in *my* lifetime, and I'll be forty-three this year) when no one bought stuff they actually hoped to use that was Made in China.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

@Donna - She devotes the last chapter to describing a couple grocery stores that have a more sustainable business model - treats their employees well with good wages and benefits while still having affordable prices (as opposed to super cheap prices). Unfortunately the only stores she mentions specifically are Wegmans and Costco. I think she'd be very supportive of any type of artisan craftsman, if you can afford that.

Billie said...

I would love to read that book and then pass it along.

I went by a jewelers today that had a closing sale on it. I thought to myself, is it really closing? I saw that sign last month. I have seen a number of 'closing sales' over the last few years and discovered the stores in business some time later. Do the buyers feel ripped off when they discover their deal is still available 6 months later?

Robbie said...

I'd love to read the book! I was thinking the same thing the other day, cleaning out old clothes that were cheaply made and cheaply bought but rarely used because they didn't hold up well in the wash and were...well...cheap.

shadow_elan said...

This is incredible, my boyfriend and I were just talking about this. My parents are so obsessed with "getting a good deal" that they are completely oblivious to the detrimental aspects of "cheap" products! Argh!

Thank you for the giveaway, I would love to win this book.

Dana

Anonymous said...

I was surprised to find at Ikea last weekend - accompanying a a friend who is setting up house - that a lot of their products are made in China. Personally I try and buy second-hand but sometimes have to buy new, and decisions can be hard when choosing glass over plastic, hardwood over veneer etc. Pretty much every glass storage jar in every shop is made in China!

Would love to have a read of "Cheap" and pass it on.

Cath

Kim said...

I think the problem is demonstrated perfectly when I read a review like this, about a book like this, and immediately go to open my amazon.com wishlist to add it.

Yes, but I mostly only use the wishlist as a tool to keep track of what I read, I tell myself...And that is mostly true. But I know all too well how easy it is to just click "buy" especially when I see how cheaply they're offering the book...

Anyway. Given that, I'd LOVE the chance to win your copy. I'm moving all the way across the country (to North Carolina! From Alaska!) In August, so I'll again pass it on when I'm done with it.

Thanks for the chance!

Wonder-ful said...

Try checking out "Blood, Sweat & T-Shirts" on Planet Green. They take a group of fashionable young people from the UK and they experience what it's like to produce the clothing we wear. They actually live with the families that grow and sew our clothes, and learn first-hand what it's like to work there (and an assortment of other effects it has).

Kim said...

I actually love the idea of the "sisterhood of the traveling book" club, would love to read this myself, or be the next reader or however it winds up working out.

My grandparents always preached the "buy the best you can afford or save for it, rather than buy junk today". They had the same wool carpet for 25 years and while the color became dated, then back in style... the carpet itself never aged. Their furniture was the same way.

I think we pay a much higher price in the long run for low quality goods, and we pay it with compounding interest.

hekatesgal said...

I'd love to read this. I'm sick of cheap clothes. It often seems like kids pants especially wear out after two wearings.

Debra said...

I would love to read this book. debmoulton

Kellie said...

Sounds like a great read. I'll have to check our library!

Daisy said...

I often wonder if in the quest for being pennywise we're instead being pound foolish. I'd love to read this!

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

@Kim - Have you tried Goodreads for keeping track of what books you want to read? Where in North Carolina are you moving to? I live in Raleigh.

AP said...

Thank you for posting this. This sounds exactly like my recent realization. I ended up ditching (and by ditch, I mean passed on to my sisters, and then on to Salvation Army) a lot of the clothes that I picked up cheap for my new job 2.5 years because they just didn't hold up. The stuff I'm still wearing? It's the splurges.

If I don't get selected for the book, I'll definitely look for it at the library.

knittingmitty said...

This sounds like a book I'd love to read. I've been thinking a lot about this very thing recently.

Jenn the Greenmom said...

"Sisterhood of the Traveling Book"--I love it! Count me in!

Just a word about the cheap laminate bookcases, though...I mean, yeah, Ikea (and Target and the Stuff We All Seemed To Get In Grad School And Young Adulthood) bookcases are crap, but I actually have a basement full of cheap laminate bookcases. They don't match, they look awful, and there's a reason they're in our basement, but...these suckers are some of them 15-18 years old. They're hell to move, and occasionally we lose one in a move or due to too many books on it cracking a shelf, but they actually can last longer than you think. (My husband and I are book hounds, and we literally have a small "library" in our basement--9 or 10 tall bookcases, all full,all but 2 cheap,and several more boxes of books we don't yet have room for...)

By contrast, the "nice middle ground" chest of drawers we got for my daughter last year is already falling apart and betraying itself, when one looks closely, as merely laminate and cheap wood that someone else assembled and probably not as well as we would have. You're totally right about so many of us growing up completely unable to recognize quality when we see it...

Sigh...I totally need to read this book, though it will probably depress me.

Laura said...

I love to read, and I've been looking for this book for awhile. Our library doesn't have it.

Emily said...

I would love a copy of this book & pledge to pass it on to my mother-in-law, who loves to buy cheap crap from China at Ross just because "it's a deal!"

Emily

Alden said...

I'd love a copy of this book -- sustainability and quality are two things that I really focus on when I'm shopping. So is reusing durable goods, which is good since I'm currently doing the totally broke rural Irish thing. :)

Cheers!
Alden

Lisa said...

This is getting me thinking...I'd love toread more.

AnnMarie said...

Count me in as an interested reader too. DH is hoping to build out own bookcases for quality, tho hr first has to learn to make them. Real email paulukon at yahoo

Shona~ LALA dex press said...

Luckily the library has a copy, sounds like a good read. Like so many, we too ditched the "college" Ikea furniture years ago + are slowly accumulating adult furniture through Craigslist, flea markets + some really nice thrift store finds that will last.

Actually, it was the '94 Northridge (L.A.) earthquake that made me see the cheap furniture light. My cheap melamine bookcases were demolished + I saw them for what they really were. Afterwords I sought out solid wood (in L.A. they had to be bolted to the wall). The only thing that remains is a solid wood marginally cheap bookcase from Conrans.

Shona~ LALA dex press said...

Forgot to mention, this book reminded me to look for "A Year Without Made in China" by Sara Bongiori. I heard her on NPR when the book came out.

amiekay said...

Thank you so much for sharing your book reviews. I'm a single mom interested in gardening, homesteading, green living, frugality (of course!), and homemaking, and I have to be discriminating when buying books--so I definitely appreciate the reviews so I can make informed choices.

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