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Editorial Reviews

How did Americans become the most voracious consumers in the world? This exposé unmasks the transformation of a frugal nation into one made up of the world's most notorious spendthrifts. Shell offers a historical perspective that spans the various steps of this transition at all levels of the economy - from department stores to supermarkets. Lorna Raver is an apt narrator for this title because her voice has the mature quality of one who may have seen some of the events she recounts. Her dry tone conveys the sardonic subtext that runs throughout the narrative as it switches between objective and subjective accounts in equal parts. She explains with gusto the growth of the discount market in the U.S.
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Publisher's Summary

From the shuttered factories of the rust belt to the look-alike strip malls of the sun belt---and almost everywhere in between---America has been transformed by its relentless fixation on low price. This pervasive yet little examined obsession is arguably the most powerful and devastating market force of our time---the engine of globalization, outsourcing, planned obsolescence, and economic instability in an increasingly unsettled world. Low price is so alluring that we may have forgotten how thoroughly we once distrusted it. Ellen Ruppel Shell traces the birth of the bargain as we know it from the Industrial Revolution to the assembly line and beyond, homing in on a number of colorful characters, such as Gene Verkauf (his name is Yiddish for "to sell"), founder of E. J. Korvette, the discount chain that helped wean customers off traditional notions of value. The rise of the chain store in post-Depression America led to the extolling of convenience over quality, and big-box retailers completed the reeducation of the American consumer by making them prize low price in the way they once prized durability and craftsmanship. The effects of this insidious perceptual shift are vast: a blighted landscape, escalating debt (both personal and national), stagnating incomes, fraying communities, and a host of other socioeconomic ills. That's a long list of charges, and it runs counter to orthodox economics, which argues that low price powers productivity by stimulating a brisk free market. But Shell marshals evidence from a wide range of fields---history, sociology, marketing, psychology, even economics itself---to upend the conventional wisdom.
Cheap also unveils the fascinating and unsettling illogic that underpins our bargain-hunting reflex and explains how our deep-rooted need for bargains colors every aspect of our psyches and social lives.
©2009 Ellen Ruppel Shell (P)2009 Tantor
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Critic Reviews

"Highly intelligent and disturbing.... Highly recommended." ( Library Journal, Starred Review)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful
4 out of 5 stars
By Roy on 07-26-09

You Get What You Pay For?

Ellen Shell in "Cheap" sets out to make sense of the discount culture that characterizes our economy. She accomplishes this with hardly a mention of WalMart! She relates how the discount economy has allowed us to eat shrimp in abundance (Red Lobster) and to purchase poorly built furniture from IKEA. She argues that we are trading low price for quality and that those low prices are not without "costs" to the environment and poor workers elsewhere. Her history of discount shopping is most informative and brings back names such as Woolworths and others long gone.

Some of the material will be familiar to those who follow economics and business. However, there are surprises at every turn and disturbing issues that she raises. She hits the reader early and often with the understanding that we are quickly replacing quality goods with shoddy merchandise and our lives are less for the trade.

I would suggest that this book be preceded or followed by Chris Anderson's "Free" which deals with technology driving the costs of some services to zero. Both Free and Cheap are well written and read. They are both disturbing and informative.

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15 of 16 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars
By Joshua Kim on 06-10-12

A Perfect Companion to Free

Cheap is the perfect companion to Free. Or maybe the antidote to Free. Where Anderson sees a bright future for free, Ruppel Shell reminds us of the high cost of cheap. These costs range from the loss of decent paying jobs for producers to the environmental damage that allows cheap furniture, food, and manufacturing goods to come to market. We probably didn't need one more book on the dangers of the cheap industrial food complex, but Ruppel Shell puts trends in food in the larger context of the migration away from quality across the consumer basket. The chapter on Ikea alone is worth the price of admission.

My only quibble is that perhaps the author over-sold her case.
We have realized some benefits from the cost of some things dropping, from computers to bandwidth (see Anderson), her case would have been strengthened by an exploration of cheap done right. Still, this Free and Cheap should be read together, the first book getting us drunk on the limitless future and the second book sobering us up on the high costs that we are all paying.

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2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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