I expected Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, Ellen Rupple Shell and In Cheap We Trust to touch opposite sides of the same coin. I thought the latter would be about how it’s good to be cheap, that is, frugal. (Which it was.) I thought this book would be about how others pay the true cost of the cheap goods we buy. It’s more about how we are deceived into buying cheap junk that won’t last, and end up spending more money in the long run. In short, cheap junk sells even to people who can afford better because they don’t know.
The book goes into immense detail about how discounters work. Discount vendors conceal and distort information to get you to buy their stuff. They never mention the existence of better choices. They lead you to believe that they are cutting costs in the business model, not the product. They make it nearly impossible to find out about the conditions their employees labor under, or how the resources they need are actually extracted. They conceal farming practices. They conceal pricing information. They sell imitations of high quality goods. They even sell imitations of their own higher quality goods in outlet stores by luring you away from competitors or the resources to find out whether that diamond necklace is really diamond or what it sells for elsewhere. It’s all about information.
While some of the dirt about Whole Foods and Big Organic makes the news occasionally, it’s not easy digging up similar information for most big companies. Walmart isn’t even as cheap they want you to think; about a third of the inventory costs more than elsewhere. IKEA isn’t as nice as they want you to think; they get their wood where everyone else (from Home Depot and Lowe’s to Walmart) gets their wood: the eastern Siberian forest, which is being logged with Chinese labor and shipped to factories in China.
On the other hand, the book makes the case for Wegman’s being what Whole Foods claims to be. They run cooking classes, nutritional seminars, and wine tastings to educate the public. In areas with high turnover among young people, they enrolled them in a mentoring program and encouraged them to stick with the job long term. Guess what? They give their customers more information.
Considering how important information is, I was frustrated not to find a listing of resources to find out who is doing the right thing, aside from reading books like this. So if you care about such matters, you owe it to yourself to do your research. Somehow.