NPR’s Talk of the Nation reviewed Ellen Ruppell Shell’s book the other week, called Cheap. Here is the NPR website’s description of the piece:
The words discount, half-price and final sale can get you running to the mall or reaching for your credit card. But in her book called Cheap, author Ellen Ruppel Shell explains why bargain-hunting may come at a high price.
"In a market awash in increasingly similar — even identical — goods," Shell writes, "price is the ultimate arbiter; the lower, the better." But the inexpensive Target underwear and the bootleg watches from street vendors quickly show their true value, and their production comes at a societal cost.
Shell discusses why consumers are so oblivious about prices – an attribute that we often consider to be the only objective qualifier of goods. In fact, Shell says, prices are extremely subjective. Shell posits that the haggling of old-world bazaars was a more organic and logical way to determine the price of goods. Arbitrary modern pricing allows us to feel like we got a good deal on an item marked down by 50%, even when the same item always costs that much at another seller. We assume that the marked-up item must be better.
Shell says that retailers encourage a mindset of disposability, enticing consumers to constantly trade up – though “up” may mean newer, not necessarily better. Ecologically, that means more consumption and more waste. And of course, the deals we get on goods often reflect conditions for the people who made them.
Discount chains appeal to our desire to get a good deal, and we’ve stopped investing in goods that will stand the test of time. This, she says, has perverted our sense of “value;” the word now exclusively conjures a price tag, with no consideration for quality.
A few months ago, my husband and I agreed not to buy any more furniture that we wouldn’t want to keep forever. Obviously, a lot of people can’t do that – we combined property a year ago, I’ve been collecting furniture for years, and we have our share of cheap placeholders, too – Ikea furniture I bought years ago to use “for now.” It’s the “for now” stuff we’d like to stop buying, and it could save us money in the long-term. I’m trying to refurbish well-built things I find on Craigslist, wait patiently for the occasional antique that doesn’t need much work, or save and invest in a decent piece that we’ll have forever. The work we put into the old pieces – which have, incidentally, already proven their stamina over time – endears them to us more. Shell extols secondhand stores and occasional antiques stores for this; I’d like to add Craigslist and yard sales to the list. And as far as the “investment” furniture goes – well, the saving is what’s keeping it from me.