Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

Ellen Ruppel Shell


“Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture” is an enlightening book by Ellen Ruppel Shell, an American journalist and a professor at Boston University. 📚 Published in 2009, this non-fiction work delves into the intricacies of the discount culture that pervades modern society, unraveling the true costs behind the low prices that consumers often take for granted. 🏷️

Ellen Ruppel Shell brings to the forefront an insightful critique of consumerism, exploring how the relentless pursuit of discounts has shaped businesses, economies, and societal norms. The book is set against a backdrop of historical, economic, and psychological research, making it a genre-blending exploration that ranges from investigative journalism to cultural analysis. 🕵️‍♀️

In “Cheap,” Shell combines her expertise in science and technology journalism with a deep dive into the economics of consumer behavior, offering readers a comprehensive view of the complexities and consequences of discount culture. This read is not just an academic pursuit but a journey into the everyday reality of shopping, spending, and the quest for value in a world where price often trumps quality and sustainability. 💸

Plot Summary

“Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture” doesn’t follow a traditional narrative structure with a plot involving exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution, as it is a non-fiction book. Instead, it systematically explores and dissects the phenomenon of discount culture. However, we can outline the main events or sections of the book to provide a structured summary:

  • Introduction — Shell introduces the concept of cheapness not just as a price point but as a pervasive cultural and economic force. She sets the stage for a comprehensive examination of how discount culture has evolved and why it matters.
  • Historical Context — The book traces the origins of discount culture, linking it to historical developments like the rise of mass production, department stores, and eventual discount retailers. Shell illustrates how these changes transformed consumer behavior and expectations.
  • Psychological Underpinnings — Shell delves into the psychological effects of low pricing, including how consumers perceive value, quality, and their own decision-making processes when faced with discounts and promotions.
  • Economic Impact — The narrative transitions to the broader economic implications of a culture obsessed with discounts, discussing the effects on labor markets, global trade, and product quality.
  • Social and Ethical Considerations — The book examines the social and ethical ramifications of discount culture, highlighting issues such as environmental degradation, waste, and the erosion of community bonds.
  • Resolution and Reflection — In the concluding sections, Shell reflects on the potential for change, advocating for more mindful consumption and a shift away from the unsustainable aspects of discount culture.

By presenting a detailed analysis of each aspect of discount culture, Shell invites readers to rethink their own shopping habits and consider the broader implications of their pursuit of cheapness.

Character Analysis

Given that “Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture” is a non-fiction work, it does not have characters in the traditional sense of a novel. Instead, the book features various stakeholders in the discount culture, including consumers, retailers, economists, and workers, each playing a role in the narrative constructed by Ellen Ruppel Shell. Here, we’ll treat these groups as “characters” for the sake of analysis:

  • Consumers — Representing the average person who is drawn to low prices and sales. These “characters” are often conflicted, caught between the desire for bargains and an understanding of the true cost of cheapness, illustrating the psychological and social complexities of discount culture.
  • Retailers — Including big-box stores and online marketplaces, these entities are portrayed as the architects of discount culture, constantly innovating to lower prices and increase sales, often at the expense of ethical considerations or long-term sustainability.
  • Economists — Providing a voice of reason or critique, economists in Shell’s narrative help to unpack the intricate dynamics of price setting and market behavior, offering insights into the long-term impacts of a discount-driven economy.
  • Workers — Often the unseen backbone of the discount culture, these individuals symbolize the labor implications of cheap manufacturing and retailing, highlighting issues of fair wages, working conditions, and job security.

Here’s a summary of these “characters” in a table format:

CharacterPersonality/MotivationCharacter Development
ConsumersDriven by the desire to save money, yet increasingly aware of the broader implications of their choices.Evolve from unthinking participants in discount culture to more reflective, conscious shoppers.
RetailersFocused on profit maximization and market dominance, pushing the limits of how low they can set prices.They remain largely static, embodying the relentless drive of capitalism, though some show signs of embracing ethical practices.
EconomistsAnalytical and critical, offering insights into the mechanics and consequences of discounting.Serve as guides to understanding the complex dynamics at play, their perspectives enrich the narrative’s depth.
WorkersThe most affected by discount culture, often powerless yet central to the story.Their plight illuminates the human cost of cheapness, prompting calls for change in consumer and corporate behavior.

This table showcases the dynamic interplay of forces and perspectives that Shell uses to paint a comprehensive picture of discount culture and its many facets.

Themes and Symbols

“Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture” by Ellen Ruppel Shell delves into various themes and symbols that underpin the narrative and critical analysis of discount culture. Here’s how these elements contribute to the overall meaning of the book:

  • Sustainability vs. Consumerism — This theme is central to Shell’s argument, juxtaposing the relentless pursuit of lower prices with the environmental and ethical costs of such behavior. The book suggests that the true cost of cheapness goes beyond the price tag, implicating resource depletion, pollution, and labor exploitation.
  • Perception of Value — Shell explores how consumers’ perception of value is manipulated by pricing strategies and marketing, leading to a distorted understanding of quality, worth, and necessity. The price tag becomes a symbol of value, often misleading consumers into equating cheapness with efficiency or thrift.
  • Globalization — The impact of a globalized economy on discount culture is a recurrent theme. Shell illustrates how globalization enables and exacerbates the race to the bottom in pricing, affecting economies and societies worldwide.
  • Ethical Consumption — Through her critique, Shell advocates for mindful consumption, urging readers to consider the ethical dimensions of their purchasing decisions. This theme challenges the norm of discount culture, promoting a more sustainable and socially responsible consumer behavior.
  • Inequality — Discount culture is shown to contribute to and exacerbate social and economic inequalities. Low prices often come at the expense of workers’ rights and conditions, highlighting a systemic issue of inequity within global commerce.

These themes are interwoven throughout Shell’s narrative, painting a complex picture of the modern consumer landscape and the multifaceted impacts of discount culture. Through this analysis, Shell not only critiques the prevailing norms but also symbolizes the potential for change in how we value and engage with the economic systems that shape our lives.

Style and Tone

In “Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture,” Ellen Ruppel Shell employs a writing style and tone that are both engaging and informative, contributing significantly to the mood and atmosphere of the book. Here’s how these elements come into play:

  • Investigative and Analytical — Shell adopts an investigative approach, thoroughly researching and presenting facts, figures, and historical contexts. Her analytical prowess helps to dissect complex economic and social systems, making them accessible to the reader.
  • Conversational and Approachable — Despite the complex subject matter, Shell’s tone remains conversational, which helps to engage readers. She explains economic and sociological concepts in layman’s terms, making the book approachable for a wide audience.
  • Critical yet Optimistic — Throughout the book, Shell maintains a critical tone towards the unsustainable practices inherent in discount culture. However, she also offers a sense of optimism by highlighting potential pathways for change and encouraging more conscious consumer behaviors.
  • Narrative-driven — Shell uses narrative techniques to weave together historical anecdotes, personal stories, and expert interviews, creating a more relatable and engaging discourse that resonates with the everyday experiences of readers.
  • Reflective — The tone of the book often shifts to a more reflective and sometimes philosophical perspective, encouraging readers to ponder their own shopping habits and the broader implications of their choices on society and the environment.

These stylistic and tonal choices enhance the mood and atmosphere of “Cheap,” making it not just a book about economic theory or consumer behavior, but a compelling narrative that invites readers to critically engage with the world around them.

Literary Devices Used in Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

1. Anecdotes

Ellen Ruppel Shell frequently uses anecdotes to illustrate her points, making abstract economic concepts more tangible and relatable. These short, personal stories help to ground her arguments in real-world experiences, connecting the reader emotionally to the subject matter.

2. Metaphors

Shell employs metaphors to draw comparisons between discount culture and various phenomena, enhancing understanding and adding depth to her analysis. For example, she likens the relentless pursuit of lower prices to a “race to the bottom,” implying a destructive competition that undermines quality and ethical standards.

3. Case Studies

Throughout the book, Shell presents detailed case studies of companies, industries, and economic trends, providing a comprehensive view of how discount culture operates and affects different sectors of the economy. These case studies serve as evidence to support her arguments.

4. Historical References

Shell uses historical references to provide context and background, showing how discount culture has evolved over time. This device helps to situate current consumer behaviors within a broader historical narrative.

5. Juxtaposition

She juxtaposes the positive and negative aspects of discount culture, such as affordability versus quality or economic growth versus environmental impact. This literary device highlights the complexities and contradictions inherent in the topic.

6. Irony

Shell often employs irony to critique the paradoxes of discount culture, such as the irony of “saving money” at the cost of long-term sustainability or ethical compromises. This device adds a layer of critical reflection to her analysis.

7. Exemplification

Shell uses exemplification to provide specific examples that illustrate broader trends or concepts, making her arguments more concrete and substantiated.

8. Comparative Analysis

The author engages in comparative analysis to show differences and similarities between various phenomena related to discount culture, like comparing traditional retail with online marketplaces.

9. Rhetorical Questions

Shell uses rhetorical questions to engage the reader and prompt them to think critically about the issues discussed, fostering a reflective reading experience.

10. Statistics and Data

Finally, Shell incorporates statistics and data to quantitatively support her narrative, lending credibility and a scientific basis to her claims.

These literary devices are integral to Shell’s exploration of discount culture, each contributing to a richer, more nuanced understanding of the subject matter.

Literary Devices Examples


  1. Example: Shell recounts a personal story of buying a cheap toaster that malfunctioned, leading to a broader discussion on the false economy of low-priced goods. Explanation: This anecdote serves to illustrate the hidden costs of seemingly good deals, making the concept more relatable and impactful for the reader.
  2. Example: She shares experiences of factory workers, giving a human face to the often invisible cost of cheap production. Explanation: These stories highlight the ethical and human implications of discount culture, fostering empathy and understanding.
  3. Example: The narrative of a small town impacted by the opening of a big-box retailer shows the community-level effects of discount culture. Explanation: This real-life example helps readers see the broader societal and economic impact of discount pricing strategies.


  1. Example: Shell describes the relentless search for lower prices as “digging to the bottom of the barrel,” implying a depletion of quality and resources. Explanation: This metaphor conveys the unsustainable nature of constant price undercutting and its detrimental effects.
  2. Example: She likens the rapid turnover of cheap products to “throwaway culture,” emphasizing disposability and waste. Explanation: This metaphor critically addresses the environmental and societal costs of disposable consumer goods.
  3. Example: The book uses the metaphor of a “treadmill” to describe the never-ending cycle of buying and discarding cheap goods. Explanation: This illustrates the exhaustive and continuous nature of consumerism driven by low prices.

Case Studies

  1. Example: Analysis of IKEA’s business model shows how large-scale production and cost-cutting measures contribute to discount culture. Explanation: This case study offers insight into how certain business practices can drive down prices while raising questions about sustainability and ethics.
  2. Example: The study of Walmart’s effect on local economies demonstrates the chain reaction of discount retailing on small businesses and communities. Explanation: This provides a comprehensive look at the economic and social consequences of major discount retailers.
  3. Example: Examination of the fast-fashion industry reveals the environmental and labor costs of producing cheap, trendy clothing. Explanation: This case study sheds light on the rapid production and disposal cycle in the fashion industry, illustrating the broader implications of cheap consumer goods.

These examples of literary devices in “Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture” showcase Ellen Ruppel Shell’s use of narrative techniques to convey complex ideas in an accessible and engaging manner.

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture – FAQs

What is the main argument of “Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture”?

  • Ellen Ruppel Shell argues that the pervasive quest for discounts and low prices in consumer culture has hidden costs that affect society, the economy, and the environment. She explores how this obsession with cheapness undermines quality, devalues labor, and perpetuates unsustainable practices.

Who is the target audience of the book?

  • The book is aimed at a broad audience, including consumers, business professionals, economists, policymakers, and anyone interested in understanding the implications of consumer culture, economic practices, and their effects on society and the environment.

How does Ellen Ruppel Shell support her argument in the book?

  • Shell supports her argument through a mix of personal anecdotes, historical analysis, case studies, interviews with experts, and examination of economic data, providing a comprehensive view of how discount culture has evolved and its multifaceted impacts.

What does Ellen Ruppel Shell suggest as a solution to the problems posed by discount culture?

  • Shell suggests that a more conscious approach to consumption, prioritizing quality and sustainability over low price, can mitigate the negative effects of discount culture. She advocates for better consumer education, ethical business practices, and policies that encourage sustainable economic models.

Can “Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture” be considered an academic book?

  • While the book is research-based and includes in-depth analysis and references, it is written in an accessible style, making it suitable for both academic readers and the general public. Its interdisciplinary approach covers topics in economics, sociology, and environmental studies.


  1. What historical development does Ellen Ruppel Shell cite as a precursor to modern discount culture?
    • A) The Industrial Revolution
    • B) The Renaissance
    • C) The Dot-com Boom
    • D) The Post-War Consumer Boom
    • Correct Answer: A) The Industrial Revolution
  2. According to Shell, what is one major negative consequence of discount culture on the workforce?
    • A) Increased job satisfaction
    • B) Decreased labor rights and wages
    • C) More remote working opportunities
    • D) Higher employment rates
    • Correct Answer: B) Decreased labor rights and wages
  3. What does Shell propose to counteract the negative effects of discount culture?
    • A) Ignoring the issues altogether
    • B) Increasing consumer education and promoting ethical consumption
    • C) Completely eliminating discounts
    • D) Focusing only on luxury markets
    • Correct Answer: B) Increasing consumer education and promoting ethical consumption
  4. How does Shell describe the impact of discount culture on product quality?
    • A) It leads to higher quality as companies compete
    • B) Quality is unaffected by price
    • C) It results in a decrease in product quality
    • D) Product quality is inconsistent
    • Correct Answer: C) It results in a decrease in product quality
  5. Which literary device does Shell frequently use to illustrate her points in the book?


Read the following paragraph from “Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture” and identify the literary devices used:

“In the world of fast fashion, consumers are seduced by the siren call of ever-changing trends, compelling them to discard last season’s styles in favor of the latest, yet often inferior, designs. This relentless cycle of consumption and disposal echoes the larger narrative of a society ensnared by the illusion of abundance, where the true cost of cheapness is hidden beneath the surface of low prices and fleeting satisfaction.”


  1. Metaphor: “siren call” – This phrase is used metaphorically to describe the enticing and ultimately harmful nature of fast fashion trends.
  2. Alliteration: “consumption and disposal” – The repetition of the ‘c’ and ‘d’ sounds in this phrase adds a rhythmic quality to the text, emphasizing the ongoing cycle.
  3. Personification: “ever-changing trends, compelling them” – Trends are personified as having the power to compel, giving them an active role in influencing consumer behavior.
  4. Imagery: “illusion of abundance” – This phrase creates a visual metaphor that contrasts the perceived plenty with the hidden costs and consequences of cheapness.
  5. Irony: “the true cost of cheapness is hidden beneath the surface of low prices and fleeting satisfaction” – This statement is ironic because it highlights the paradox that what is perceived as cheap actually comes with high, but often overlooked, costs.