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Bargain-hunting Adds Up to Unexpected Costs

In the new book "Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture," author Ellen Ruppel Shell explores modern consumers' love of cheap, mass-produced products, and the downsides -- on wages, the environment, and quality -- that a discount culture creates.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Next tonight, NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman has a conversation about the pursuit of a good deal. It's part of his series "Making Sense."

    ELLEN RUPPEL SHELL, author, "Cheap": You see what the sign says? It's, "We've got to have it." Now, why do we have to have it?

    PAUL SOLMAN, NewsHour economics correspondent: Author Ellen Shell, whose much-discussed new book, "Cheap," blasts the high cost of discount culture.

  • ELLEN RUPPEL SHELL:

    What is it about these particular shorts and these particular shirts that we've got to have? We're compelled to buy these things, mostly by the price.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    We're compelled by marketers, says Shell, who understand how human nature and the brain that embodies it evolved, our love of bargains bred in the bone.

  • ELLEN RUPPEL SHELL:

    Brain scientists have shown that a good deal triggers the pleasure centers of the brain in almost all of us to such an extent that it obliterates a more reasonable, rational side.

    In the case of bargain-hunting, the anticipation of owning something for very low price is what triggers the biggest reaction, the biggest pleasure sensations in the brain. It's not the actual owning of the object, OK?

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    Shell thinks the brain we hunter-gatherers were graced with when we stopped evolving many millennia ago feels bad when it passes up a bargain.

  • ELLEN RUPPEL SHELL:

    What we want to avoid in life is regret. We hate regret.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    For good reason, she says.

  • ELLEN RUPPEL SHELL:

    When you're talking about regret, I mean, if we're going to speculate about early man, OK, mistakes in those days could be very, very bad. You know, for example, if you missed the opportunity to run down that elk, you may starve to death, OK? There were reasons why you would regret not taking action.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    A hundred and fifty thousand years later, the fear of not carpe-ing the diem might sucker us into buying window gel clings for only $2.99. Such a deal.

  • ELLEN RUPPEL SHELL:

    So it's $2.99 for something that you probably wouldn't even pick up off the beach if it kind of came in with the tide.

  • PAUL SOLMAN:

    But it's pretty. I mean, it's going to be nice on my grandchildren's window.

  • ELLEN RUPPEL SHELL:

    Yes, and if you wanted — if you come in deliberately to buy window gel clings, I say go for it.

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