Just as I promised, I’m going to provide you with a book review, of sorts, on the book Cheap.
This book has a subtitle: The High Cost of Discount Culture. This is a fairly accurate description of the topic of the book, but it’s also probably more cute than precise. Do not get me wrong, though, Ellen Ruppel Shell is an excellent writer who takes her topic seriously and backs up her claims with research and investigation.
Some of the topics in this book are about things you already know: Wal-Mart sucks the lifeblood out of its employees, lowers everyone’s standards, puts every other local business out of business, and is, generally, the incarnation of evil.
Other topics, you probably do not know about (particularly if you’re like me and you try your best not to think about money too much). I found the chapter on pricing to be particularly engaging. Although I’ve long thought about the sheer strangeness and seeming arbitrariness of how things are priced, I’ve never really educated myself about any of the reasons thereof. I’d never really thought about the price tag as something that did not exist until someone invented it. They were just on everything and then they gradually disappeared with the introduction of the barcode (to the never-ending consternation of many folk).
Other things I’d never thought about: that someone invented the shopping mall concept. The idea of stores along a building’s perimeter, with an open centre with escalators and elevators, apparently the guy who designed the first one hit on such a perfect concept, they’ve barely changed since.*
The whole concept was to lure shoppers in and trap them, all the better to subject them to an endless barrage of stuff. And that stuff has become cheaper and cheaper as the world has become more easily transportable (shipping containers, Shell explains, “reduced theft, spoilage, delays, and over 90 percent of the cost” and thus, distance became immaterial).(p. 188)
Another interesting insight into how we are managed when we are shopping, was the introduction of the shopping cart into discount stores. Originally strictly for grocery stores, it did not go over well at first, but a canny discount store owner hired actors to use them, and the public was sold. An interesting titbit to think about, next time you’re out shopping, is the effect of these handy devices: “Analysts estimate that shoppers buy one more item per visit when they have a shopping cart to put it in.” (p.38). I thought of this when I went shopping a few nights ago, and I strode right past the shopping carts. I have a terrible habit of going to the grocery store for one or two things and leaving with 20 things. I should use this trick more often.
And then there is this: Shell talks about the fascinating phenomenon that, as human animals, are far more attuned to making sure we don’t lose something than we are on gaining anything. It doesn’t matter whether we want the thing we’ve bought – we got a great deal – we didn’t lose at the game of getting a “great deal.” This explains a lot, to me.
As for those “great deals,” Shell discusses the use of coupons and rebates. Coupons are great and people use them…but they require a little effort. More so, for rebates. I have long thought (and it turns out I am right) that rebates are specifically designed not to be redeemed. Shell devotes a longish section to the careful balance between making the rebate attractive enough to draw the customer in, without being so good that it’ll have an enormous redemption rate. Generally, however, she writes that redemption rates “hover in the 5 to 10% range.” (p. 119). Think about this. This is insane. Shell explains that we get the thrill of the good deal and we automatically see the purchase, in our mind’s eye, as being the price after rebate. I have felt odd, I am not ashamed to admit, when I finally get that $3.59 cheque from a manufacturer (as I’ve done on more than one occasion) but dang it, someone has to make them put their money where their mouths are!
An interesting side effect of the cult of cheap is one that you probably have already noticed, even if you’ve not specifically noted it, and that is the lack of middle ground. You can buy a cheap, flimsy, built-to-break item, or you can buy an expensive, sturdy, built-to-last item. It’s terribly difficult to find something that is moderately priced, reasonably tough, and built to be repairable. It’s become all or nothing.
There is a lot more to this book, I’ve barely skimmed the surface. It’s certainly a fantastic way of forcing one’s mind to really probe into the rationale between how things can be priced less each year (Walmart “rollbacks” anyone?) and how things are priced in general. It calls all sorts of assumptions and practises into question. It will make you guiltily aware of the source of many of your things.
My only real beef with this book is that it puts too much onus on the “consumer” to be the solution. To be fair, this really is the target audience for her book, and it will make you squirm, but I would have appreciated a little more asperion-casting to be directed toward the giant evil corporations and their greasy, overpaid henchmen, but maybe that’s just me.
I bought this book second-hand, and it’s going on to my bookshelf, so if you want to borrow it, please feel free to drop by.
Day 53 Scorecard: 265 down, 1560 to go.
ps: today’s list was collected by Max, from Max’s room, and Max did the chalking, too.
* his name was Victor Gruen (né Grunbaum) and the first interior oriented shopping mall was Southdale, which appears to be still going strong.