Author Interviews

Americans Pay The Price Of Getting Things 'Cheap'

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In the days since the Industrial Revolution, Americans have put a premium on convenience and low prices. But this obsession with low prices has its consequences. At times, durability, craftsmanship and even social responsibility are sacrificed. Host Liane Hansen talks with Ellen Ruppel Shell, author of the book, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.


In the days since the Industrial Revolution, Americans have put a premium on convenience and low prices. But this obsession with low prices has its consequences. At times, durability, craftsmanship and even social responsibility are sacrificed.

That's the subject of a new book by journalist Ellen Ruppel Shell, titled "Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture." She's a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, and is in the studios of member station WMEA in Portland, Maine. Welcome to the program.

Ms. ELLEN RUPPEL SHELL (Author, "Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture"): It's great to be here. Thank you.

HANSEN: You know that phrases have occurred in culture. You know, don't buy retail. Or there was even a musical, "I Can Get It for You Wholesale," I remember.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHELL: That's right.

HANSEN: So we've had this cultural fixation with a good bargain, but what did you discover about it as you were writing and researching the book?

Ms. SHELL: Well, it hasn't always been the case that we looked for the lowest possible price. In fact, we all know it's a cliche - this idea that you get what you pay for. And people were historically kind of suspicious of very low price. I mean, as you mentioned in your intro, before the Industrial Revolution, of course nothing was cheap because it was all made by hand. But even at the turn of the last century - the 19th century - about 50 percent of goods were still made that way.

So it's actually kind of a relatively new phenomenon, this idea of mass-produced goods that could be sold cheaper and cheaper. And in fact, most consumer goods we buy now in the United States are bought at discount.

HANSEN: Something in the news: The recent recall of half a billion eggs over salmonella fears; we've had other recalls before. Do you find a connection between food safety and the pressure to maintain low prices?

Ms. SHELL: Oh, there's no doubt. If you're going to be selling eggs for a dollar a dozen or so - $1.50 a dozen, they're inevitably going to be coming from a certain kind of factory farm and they will probably be chickens raised in cages, under questionable conditions, potentially medicated. And this, of course, is a price that I think we all are aware of.

The price of food has fallen dramatically since the 1970s. And I think we might have reached a point where we might want to reconsider the idea of the quality of the food versus the quantity of the food.

HANSEN: Let's talk about shrimp. I mean, you talk about shrimp as cheap food and it's because of the accessibility of shrimp. But shrimp wasn't always as cheap as it is today.

Ms. RUPPEL SHELL: No. I'm old enough to remember when shrimp was a luxury. It's something you ate at a wedding or a special occasion or holiday. And in researching of the book, I found that shrimp is in fact the most commonly eaten seafood now. It outsells tuna fish, which is quite remarkable.

So, how do we get shrimp that cheaply? Well, that led me to Thailand and the coast of Thailand, which was highly eroded by these filthy ponds in which shrimp is grown in highly concentrated ways. And these environments are permanently destroyed. It also threatens the American shrimp industry itself. But that aside, it's, you know, really questionable, the quality of the shrimp.

HANSEN: I spend a lot of time in a small beach town in Delaware and just up the road is a stopping place for almost everybody who comes down to the beach and those are the outlet malls. There's three big ones on Route 1. It seems like this is some kind of American pastime. There's Franklin Mills Outlets in northeast Philadelphia - four times the visitors of the Liberty Bell; a pair of outlet malls near San Marcos, Texas, more people visit that than the Alamo. Why are these outlet malls located, typically, in out-of-the-way places?

Ms. RUPPEL SHELL: There are all sorts of reasons why - tax reasons and other reasons. But one of the reasons that they're less interested in locating more conveniently is because when we get in the car and we drive to the outlet mall, we invest. You know, the average drive to an outlet mall is about 25 to 30 miles each way. So, once you've invested all that time, you buy. And people spend substantially more per each visit in outlet malls than they do in traditional malls.

HANSEN: Yeah, but you say what these outlet stores are doing are peddling the perception of value.

Ms. RUPPEL SHELL: Right. Sometimes those brands that are sold in outlet stores are not the same good that you would buy at a full-price or traditional store. They're specially made for the outlet store. In fact, you might be overpaying for that good that you buy in the outlet store, because it's not a model or it's not a style that is available in the full-price store.

HANSEN: So, it is a truism, you think, in America: you really do have to pay more for something of quality.

Ms. RUPPEL SHELL: Well, I think it's become very difficult. We sort of have this bifurcated system where we have so-called luxury goods and then we have so-called, you know, discount goods. And sometimes the luxury goods, you know, are not really a high-quality good. We think that they are because we're paying more for them. So, what I, you know, I sort of argue is we can't be connoisseurs of everything.

But I recommend that people become more considered when they make purchases. They do the research that they can, especially major purchases, and think about why - is this going to do the job for you? Whether it's a piece of clothing or a piece of gardening equipment or electronics, whatever it is, is this going to do the job for me or am I buying this because the price is what's motivating me to buy it?

HANSEN: Ellen Ruppel Shell is the author of "Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture." She joined us from the studios of WMEA in Portland, Maine. Thank you so much.

Ms. RUPPEL SHELL: Thank you so much. It's been great.

(Soundbite of song "Bagain Hunting" by Truckstop Honeymoon)

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