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The Author Speaks

Why a Low Price Isn’t Always a Good Deal

Ellen Ruppel Shell, a self-described cheapskate talks about her new book, 'Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.'

“All you can eat!” “Buy one, get one free!” “Thirty percent off everything in stock!” “Forty-eight-hour sale!”

Shop. Shop. Shop. Americans march to sales pitches. Many of those scurrying to be first in line don’t question whether they’re getting a good deal. And if they are getting a good deal, at what cost to others does it come?

Ellen Ruppel Shell is a self-described cheapskate. But one purchase—three pairs of tube socks for $5—made her begin investigating how anything could sell at such an incredibly low price. The result is her new book, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture [read an excerpt from Cheap]. Shell, a correspondent forThe Atlanticand author ofThe Hungry Gene, not only uncovered dire consequences for consumers and workers in this country and around the world but also adopted a whole new approach in her own shopping. To start with, she now buys free-range organic eggs.

Shell spoke with AARP Bulletin Today about why $5 for tube socks isn’t such a great deal after all.

Q. What’s more important to a shopper—price or product?

A. Price is the biggest trigger, not the product itself. That’s what is really remarkable: We love the deal, we cherish the deal, we go for the deal, and often we care much less about the purchase itself. Studies have shown that there are actual psychological changes in our brain when we buy something. We get the biggest jolt from making the actual deal, and often when we bring that product home, we’re much less happy either with it or with the ownership of it.

Q. How did the price of tube socks make you question the high cost of discount culture?

A. I was buying tube socks for my kids at a discount store, and it just freaked me out that I could get three pairs of tube socks from China for $5. What does it mean when making fibers, producing socks with them, shipping the socks all the way from China, and then putting them out on the store floor—where the store space costs money and the employees checking you out at the register need to be paid—adds up to $5 for three pairs? How could these prices be so very, very low?

Q. Isn’t cheap good?

A. Well, no one wants to pay more money. I mean, I’m the biggest cheapskate that walked the earth. When I say that I adore getting free parking, I mean it! But I realized I was making a mistake by cruising for half an hour to find free parking. I was wasting gas and wasting my time. We really devalue our time. Marketers count on the fact that we’ll devalue our time.

Consider how long you spend driving to a discount store—which in the case of places like IKEA is an average of 50 miles. And then add the time you might spend assembling what you bought. And the fact that you got something that you probably won’t be able to pass down to anyone. All of that should be added to the cost of your purchase.

Q. Do really low prices come with social consequences?

A. Absolutely. I went to China twice while writing this book, and the conditions for workers there are not ideal, to say the least. I visited Taizhou, an hour’s flight from Shanghai, where thanks to low-cost production the air quality was so bad my eyes stung the minute I got off the plane. My guide, a high school teacher, showed me polluted ponds where frogs, mutated by the toxic metals and chemicals pouring into the water, had only one leg. In those same ponds, women washed clothes and kids played. Those kids also worked dismantling high-tech devices shipped in from the United States, Japan and elsewhere—computers, cell phones, et cetera—which they “mined” for metal. One way to do this was to use an acid bath to leach out the gold from, say, a pile of cell phones, resulting in extremely toxic fumes.

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