Shop Till We Drop

Shop Till We Drop


Bargain buys, it turns out, aren't such a good deal. Ellen Ruppel Shell, the author of Cheap, explains the high cost of discount culture.

One winter several years ago, Ellen Ruppel Shell did something unremarkable, for the average American - she went shopping. The Boston University journalism professor and Atlantic correspondent already had an outfit for a New Year's Eve party she planned to attend. All she needed was a pair of boots to go with it.

The store's selection was disappointing, until she asked the manager if he had anything special. He produced a pair of handmade leather boots. Shell fell in love. Then she looked at the price. I can't afford that, she thought. So she settled on a pair at a fraction of the cost. She wore the uncomfortable, badly made boots to the party, and on New Year's Day tossed them in the back of her closet. Then she did something, well, remarkable: She reflected on her many years of bargain purchases - the spade that broke as soon as it hit dirt, the iron that ruined a shirt on first use - and decided to pull back the curtain on what "cheap" really buys us.

Shell embarked on a two-year quest, speaking to everyone from economists to farmers, product designers to retailers. Cheap goods are an illusion, she discovered. While we tell ourselves, especially and understandably during hard times, that we need bargains to sustain our quality of life, in the long run these products aren't helping anyone - in any socioeconomic bracket. To sell cheap goods, companies need cheap labor, which keeps wages low. Discount goods also entangle us in foreign manufacturing and labor practices, which may run counter to our ethics. There are environmental costs, both in how we produce cheap goods and how quickly we discard them. And bargains disguise the fact that, in recent decades, prices on housing, insurance, and childcare - what we spend most of our money on - have skyrocketed.

Shell published her sobering findings in Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture (Penguin, 2009). She recently took time to talk to us about her book, America's bargain obsession, and how we might begin to change course.

One of your chapters is called "Death of a Craftsman." In it, you explain that as goods have become more disposable, demand for craftspeople has shrunk - making handcrafted objects more rare and expensive. Our economy raises the question: Is it elitist to expect people to pay a higher price for handmade items? 

We've become a little bipolar. In one way, we view handcrafted objects as available only to the wealthy. But in the past, we made things by hand because it was economical. We grew up with grandmothers who knit - and that's the opposite of elitist.

Those who view craftsmanship as elitist don't realize that craft doesn't need to be precious; it can be functional. A well-made table will last for years, but craftsmanship takes time, and that's the enemy of discount stores. In the post-industrial age, capitalism is about making things available to as many people as possible, which means as cheaply as possible. Mass production has led shoppers to view a table as just a table, a vase as just a vase. Many people don't expect to find craft in everyday objects.

With well-crafted goods, there is a relationship attached to the object. Craftsmen rely on skill, commitment, and judgment. Choosing to purchase something well-made that someone has invested time and skill in is rational, not elitist.

As a culture that prioritizes bargains, how do we learn to determine quality?

While Americans love low prices, they are capable of demanding true value. You can see this in the automobile industry.

When it comes to buying a car, Americans aren't looking for the cheapest. They're looking for cars that will last and not cost them more in future expenses such as gas and maintenance. We've set our own standard for quality in cars, and we can do this with all goods.

Does a weak economy increase the appeal of discount goods?

Those who own discount stores, and who have never had to buy cheap goods, are the ones who believe that. Working-class folks in particular have felt burned by discount culture for a long time. They would prefer to have better product choices. They would prefer to be able to shop at places other than Wal-Mart.

Now, with the recession, people outside of the working class are feeling this frustration as well. People who had much better-paying jobs in the past no longer have options. They're stuck. The recession has brought a new swell of anger from the middle class - and this is a cycle that can be broken when people start to think about it.

In an attempt to appeal to a larger audience, some craftspeople have added manufactured pieces to their collections. Does this practice in any way under­cut the value of their handmade items?

I think it depends on the circumstances of the manufacturing. There's a difference between mass production overseas and smaller batches being manufactured locally.

I believe slow manufacturing is a great hope for America's future. Local small businesses that make high-quality work are a great way to get people back into business. The question of whether a craftsperson is diluting their brand is a question that each needs to address personally.

How realistic is it to think Americans will stop shopping at discount retailers?
[Laughs.] Don't get me wrong. I don't think that global companies like Wal-Mart are going out of business anytime soon. They spend a lot of money on maintaining their image. The question we have to ask is whether the system is sustainable, and the answer is no. We can't continue this forever for basic environmental and economic reasons.

I'm not an economist; I'm an observer. And right now people are rethinking the consequences of their purchases. Ten years ago this wasn't happening. We don't have the American Dream anymore. Many people are wondering about the future for their children. The next generation has fewer opportunities than their parents did. We've gotten to a point where people are realizing this.

There was an article in the New York Times about the number of young people who are turning away from the corporate world - college-educated young people, going toward something their grandparents did. People are trying to get their hands on something.


Shannon Sharpe, former deputy editor for American Craft, is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, New York.