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So cheap that nothing good is left
Old 07-12-2009, 10:39 PM   #1
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So cheap that nothing good is left

IKEA is as bad as Wal-Mart | Salon Books

This article reviews the book "Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture," by Ellen Ruppel Shell. It discusses what the entire world is losing by the emphasis on readily available cheap goods.

"'Cheap' really is about us, meaning not just Americans, but citizens of the world, and about what we stand to lose in a global economic environment that threatens the very nature of meaningful work, work we can take pride in and build a career on -- or even at which we can just make a living."

I can buy any number of varieties of refrigerators filled with plastic parts. They are not going to last like the old 1940s refrigerator running in my dh's family's unheated and uncooled hunting shack for 60 years. Services are not exempt from the drive towards cheap either. For example, insurance defense law firms are paid by insurance companies. Rates are low, the insurance companies look at bills for anything they can deny, and the emphasis is to get it done as cheap as possible. Efficient is good, but cheap is bad.
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Old 07-12-2009, 10:57 PM   #2
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I'd put this book on order at the library. I can't wait to read it.
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Old 07-13-2009, 12:25 AM   #3
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"'Cheap' really is about us, meaning not just Americans, but citizens of the world, and about what we stand to lose in a global economic environment that threatens the very nature of meaningful work, work we can take pride in and build a career on -- or even at which we can just make a living."
I can buy any number of varieties of refrigerators filled with plastic parts. They are not going to last like the old 1940s refrigerator running in my dh's family's unheated and uncooled hunting shack for 60 years.
Efficient is good, but cheap is bad.
That fridge may last forever but I shudder to think of the electricity that's being wasted. At some point in lifecycle costs, cheap/disposable is better than expensive/durable.

I wonder how the authors feel about Moore's Law making microprocessors obsolete after 18 months.

At least old Apple chips ended up in Furbies...
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Old 07-13-2009, 06:14 AM   #4
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That fridge may last forever but I shudder to think of the electricity that's being wasted. At some point in lifecycle costs, cheap/disposable is better than expensive/durable
You missed the distinction between cheap and efficient, they're not interchangeable. Efficient may cost more than cheap but it does not have to be expensive.

I have always tried to purchase quality goods over cheap with the expectation that it would be cheaper in the long run if I take care of it. Looks like a good read, thanks for pointing it out Martha.
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Old 07-13-2009, 08:29 AM   #5
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It would be interesting if it presents an unbiased, objective view of the subject, but I'm skeptical (that usually does not make for "popular" reading). Maybe we could also say that what passes for "journalism" and "literature" today is "cheap"?

There are places to go buy heirloom furniture. If you want heirloom, you go find one of those - not IKEA. Seems simple to me. In fact, we furnished our 3-season room with stuff from IKEA. It is a casual room, I didn't want "heirloom" (price, weight, style). IKEA had what I thought was a great value on the pieces we got. Solid maple (some metal fasteners). Some was priced in what I would call the almost "cheap" range ( I could not buy the maple for the cost of the finished piece), a few other pieces were higher up the scale, but good value. Putting it together myself meant not having to arrange delivery. I liked that (it is environmentally better also, less energy in shipping a "knocked down" item). I'm glad there are places like IKEA and WM - sometimes that is just what I need. If it isn't, go elsewhere.

It's like anything else - we have plenty of fast food places around here, but that didn't drive the expensive, high-end restaurants out of business. The one we were at last Friday was packed.

I agree to a point though - I think that the majority of people look at the up front cost over the lifetime cost ("free" cell phones, cable/satellite installation paid for in the monthly contract rather than up-front; "discount" rates for the first 3 months or a year, etc). If this is the big market, it is what gets targeted - people like us who look for the total cost of ownership are "underserved", as we are probably a minority. Not so many choices, sometimes almost none (or at least no cost effective ones, due to economy of scale).

But I think there is some sensationalism and romanticizing the past at play here. Many, many things are far better than they were in the past. Too easy to gloss over those and gripe about the others.

Our fridge is 17 YO (I wish it had MORE plastic, some metal parts are rusting, the plastic is fine), freezer, washer/dryer ~ 22, water heater ~ 20, furnace 17, AC ~22. Our 10 YO mini-van with 106K Miles on it is probably the most trouble-free and best looking/operating vehicle we have ever owned with those miles/years. The more I think about it, I think the author might have it backwards - I'd say that on average, the value of the stuff we buy has increased tremendously over time.

If you really want to pay for quality, I think the options are out there. Offhand, I can't think of too many things that I couldn't find a higher quality version if I wanted it. But you have to be willing to pay the price - Staber washer, for example?

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Old 07-13-2009, 08:43 AM   #6
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An example of total BS from the article:

"Objects can be designed to low price," she writes, "but they cannot be crafted to low price."

That is just wrong. In many cases, modern manufacturing techniques have resulted in dramatically lowering the price, and providing a much higher value, reliability, and lifetime for the product.

Anyone want to compare their 100MB/disk Zip Drive from 1995 ($200 for the drive, ~ $15 per 100MB disk) to the $12, 4 Gigabyte Flash Drives I bought last year. I think that little, reliable flash drive represents an amazing level of craftsmanship - a different kind of craftsmanship, but I'll take it!

Electronics may be the most obvious example, but there are plenty of others. The $100 pneumatic nailer I just bought is fantastic, I doubt a $100 from 20 years ago (not even adjusting for inflation) would be as good, or as safe.

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Old 07-13-2009, 08:49 AM   #7
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....
I can buy any number of varieties of refrigerators filled with plastic parts. They are not going to last like the old 1940s refrigerator running in my dh's family's unheated and uncooled hunting shack for 60 years....
Thanks, Martha, I'll meditate on this while defrosting my refrigerator later this week. It seems like an oldie from the '60s maybe but it does have plastic parts. I have thought about replacing it for a ridiculously small price as some of my apt. bldg. neighbors have done but haven't gotten around to it and it does run fine. I wonder how many on this forum have refrigerators that need defrosting?
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Old 07-13-2009, 08:54 AM   #8
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Actually when it comes to electronics,like hdtv,cheap might be no worse because same factory in china makes the components.
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Old 07-13-2009, 10:34 AM   #9
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That fridge may last forever but I shudder to think of the electricity that's being wasted. At some point in lifecycle costs, cheap/disposable is better than expensive/durable.

I wonder how the authors feel about Moore's Law making microprocessors obsolete after 18 months.

At least old Apple chips ended up in Furbies...
In the land of hydropower, the electricity is cheap too. They never pay more than the minimum charge for electricity for the shack.
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Old 07-13-2009, 11:29 AM   #10
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I think some of us that are middle class or above are neglecting to consider the impact of "cheap" products on the working poor and lower income folks. They can buy cheap stuff now and afford themselves a much higher standard of living due to lower costs of products.

Sometimes you need a high quality item. Sometimes you don't. Choice is good. For example, I can accept something that has an annual probability of failure of 2% that serves a non-critical role. Would I pay twice as much for something that cuts that failure rate in half? No! Would I pay twice as much for something that cuts the failure rate from 2% to 0.0001%? No! It would be cheaper overall to buy the product that fails 2% of the time, then replace it in the event of failure.

From a decision-making standpoint, it is hard to justify paying a lot more for "quality" without really knowing if you are getting any real extra quality or value out of it.

Particularly with items that involve style or technology, you will typically see obsolescence before failure.
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Old 07-13-2009, 11:32 AM   #11
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I think some of us that are middle class or above are neglecting to consider the impact of "cheap" products on the working poor and lower income folks. They can buy cheap stuff now and afford themselves a much higher standard of living due to lower costs of products.
The WalMart business model uses that as a major assumption. Our SuperWalMart is busier than ever, maybe the Target folks need to save money because times are not good........

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Particularly with items that involve style or technology, you will typically see obsolescence before failure.
I think some cars are like that. I see a LOT of 10-15 year old import cars out on the roads, like Audi, Mercedes, and BMW. I think even though they are obsolete in a lot of ways, their styling makes them still look good enough to drive........
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Old 07-13-2009, 12:00 PM   #12
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Part of the problem is that labor to repair things is so costly that it's usually cheaper to treat stuff as disposable. I consider that unfortunate, but it is what it is.
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Old 07-13-2009, 12:39 PM   #13
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Ikea fills a niche.

I'm going with supply and demand--there must be a huge demand for cheap products. But if you believe you get what you pay for, there still are high-end appliances out there--not that I would be able to afford or necessarily want them, but Subzero, Wolf, Viking come to mind (and I probably have never even heard of the really luxe stuff).

I wish my dishwasher (middle-of-the-road Maytag) had more plastic and less metal in the racks to rust. And I also am happy not to relive the defrost the refrigerator ordeal every year or so (Mom was ill, didn't get around to it very often).
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Old 07-13-2009, 12:40 PM   #14
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As others have said, you can have either, or almost anywhere along the cheap-quality continuum. High quality furniture has its drawbacks too, beyond its initial cost. How many people might like to pull up stakes and move if they could easily and cheaply get rid of the furniture albatross, and easily and cheaply replace it at the other end? How many older women in particular come to have their lives dominated by furniture and heirlooms? My mother was one of these. Or if it is damaged- it takes a lot of time to seek out repair people anymore, and when you do find them they cost an arm.

Much "quality" furniture is uglier than what is at IKEA, which in general has design in its favor at least.

Personally pressboard and such is difficult for me, but inexpensive raw wood suits me fine. I won't feel bad to ditch it whenever its handy to do so. There is an active sidewalk freecycle in my neighborhood. I furnished my place with pretty nice freebie findings, a little from Cost Plus, a few hand-me downs from my kids. So far I have only bought new a bed and mattress, plus the Cost Plus stuff. Oh yeah, I also upgraded my TV. I think all in, including bed and TV etc I'm out maybe $2000. I may go looking for another bookshelf soon at an unfinished furniture place or IKEA.

I want cheap, but also handy. No one I know well has a truck, so for larger items Craig's List is out.

Ha
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Old 07-13-2009, 12:42 PM   #15
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Part of the problem is that labor to repair things is so costly that it's usually cheaper to treat stuff as disposable. I consider that unfortunate, but it is what it is.
And add to that the manufacturing process. Electronics especially, but mechanical things too, use very specialized automated processes. These processes make the product less costly and usually more reliable, smaller, lighter, but... that same process does not lend itself to disassemble and repair (at least not without a lot of specialized, expensive tools). Spot-welds, rivets, adhesives, press-fits (difficult/impractical to disassemble) versus a bolt and nut (made to disassemble, but time consuming, expensive/timely to mass assemble, can loosen or fail).

My BIL was going on about the DVD players that you "throw away" (recycle, please!) if they break. I told him fine, a company could make one that could be repaired in a local shop w/o specialized tools, but that would mean no 144 pin chips mass soldered to a PC board (among other things). That DVD player would take up a closet, and cost you thousands of dollars. You wouldn't buy it.

I do think that companies could strive to modularize products better, so you could fix it by replacing a module. A DVD player could have a removable optical drive, maybe a removable power supply and logic board. That would make it a little larger, and maybe a bit less reliable - maybe it would not even be a net gain. But there really isn't any incentive for the manufacturers to do that, I don't think it would be enough of a selling point to offset the costs and downsides.

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Old 07-13-2009, 12:55 PM   #16
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My BIL was going on about the DVD players that you "throw away" (recycle, please!) if they break. I told him fine, a company could make one that could be repaired in a local shop w/o specialized tools, but that would mean no 144 pin chips mass soldered to a PC board (among other things). That DVD player would take up a closet, and cost you thousands of dollars. You wouldn't buy it.
Maybe we'd see a return to vacuum tubes (yeah, right!). I think I might be part of the last generation to remember seeing those tube testers in stores when I was a kid...
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Old 07-13-2009, 01:12 PM   #17
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Ikea fills a niche.

I'm going with supply and demand--there must be a huge demand for cheap products. But if you believe you get what you pay for, there still are high-end appliances out there--not that I would be able to afford or necessarily want them, but Subzero, Wolf, Viking come to mind (and I probably have never even heard of the really luxe stuff).

I wish my dishwasher (middle-of-the-road Maytag) had more plastic and less metal in the racks to rust. And I also am happy not to relive the defrost the refrigerator ordeal every year or so (Mom was ill, didn't get around to it very often).
Ah, but Subzero is no better than Sears. It just looks prettier.
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Old 07-13-2009, 01:22 PM   #18
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In my neighborhood, people put their old furniture on the edge of the sidewalk, most of it disappears within a few hours. IKEA computer desks are an exception!
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Old 07-13-2009, 01:36 PM   #19
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Ah, but Subzero is no better than Sears. It just looks prettier.
See, I'm never spending big bucks for appliances so I didn't realize Sears makes Subzero. Or does Consumer Reports rates Sears the same as the high end stuff?
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Old 07-13-2009, 01:57 PM   #20
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