Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Agony of the Cell Phone Shopper

Do you enjoy pain? Then treat yourself to a day shopping for cell phones. Motor directly to the closest big name carrier store and let them have at you for a couple of hours. Then drive around till you find the next one and repeat the experience. If you have time left after you've canvassed all the carrier stores, and can still move under your own power, then visit an electronic retail store or two. On your way home, refill that tank of gas you drained during your pilgrimage and relax with a nice bag of ice on your forehead. Why that funny look on your face? You didn't even buy anything, did you?

That's the pleasure of conventional cell phone shopping. A recent study by J.D. Power and Associates shows a general undertone of dissatisfaction with the wireless retail sales experience. Leading the slide were the four horsemen of shopping misery - sales staff, store display, store facility and price/promotion. Not mentioned in the study, but fast becoming a major factor in all shopping decisions, is the fifth horseman known as gas prices. Just how far afield are you willing to go searching for the perfect phone when you can almost hear the liquid gold being sucked through your fuel injectors?

Avoiding horseman number five may wind up permeating everything we do. As the price of gas shoots right past $4 a gallon, perhaps on its way to a full fin, every news program is riddled with stories about our shock & awe and how fast we're changing our habits to cope. A common practice now is to combine shopping trips into a few well planned bursts instead of ambling all over town to compare products and check prices.

Another approach is to just stop shopping altogether... at least in the physical world. With a Web browser and a broadband connection you can shop for just about anything and not spend of drop of fuel. If you're careful, you can even avoid paying for the fuel used to bring the product to your door.

Shopping for cell phones and plans online offers other advantages as well. Let's see how it deals with those four reported shopping dissatisfiers. First, you won't have to contend with the sales staff because there is no salesperson guarding the gate. You browse in, look around to your heart's content taking as much time you want, and browse right back out if you wish. This gives you time to look at various pictures of all the phones, read the detailed specs that are never on display in the stores, check the pricing and compare one carrier's offerings against the others.

If and only if you want help, you click on a link to ask questions or otherwise get assistance. Or call a toll free number to hear a human voice. Compare that to fending off an overly eager commissioned "associate" who is all over you within seconds of crossing their threshold. It's not that store sales people don't mean well. It's just that they are so darn motivated to sell something and not always thoroughly versed in the nuances of their product line. Don't even think about asking for a fair comparison with a competing carrier's product. That's just begging for it.

Store displays are somewhat hit and miss, providing their contribution to customer dissatisfaction. Not all models are necessarily mounted for your viewing pleasure. Some are in-stock. others aren't. The really big fancy displays are the phones that are being heavily promoted. Even these only offer a limited number of bullet points. You have to think to ask for further detail and probably wait while someone looks up the information.

Compare that to the online experience where the virtual world offers enough space so that every phone model available can get a full photo and text display. You can even search out user reviews to see what people who bought the phone really think of it. Go ahead and ask for user reviews in a store. Then quick say "just kidding" before it gets unpleasant.

Speaking of the bricks and mortar experience, how much fun is it to get your phone activated? My experience is anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour of crushing boredom. It depends on how well the system is working that and how many phones, if any, your particular sales associate has personally activated. When you buy it online, that's all taken care of behind the scenes and your phone shows up ready to use.

What about prices and promotions? Go ahead and compare online pricing for cell phones with major carrier plans and see for yourself. You may be astonished to see that the prices, rebates and special offers of things like free Bluetooth headphones are better than you'll find at a carrier store or even a big box electronics store. Free phones are more common than not, with big discounts on those high priced smartphones. Some models even offer a free phone when ordered with service, and then a cash back rebate on the free phone. In the bricks and mortar world, that's pretty much unheard of.

A final advantage of the virtual world is that it never closes. You want to buy a cell phone in the middle of the night? Go ahead. It's the same experience as during the day. It's liberating to be able to shop when you please, take as much time as you want, and not have to squeeze a side trip or two into your daily schedule. Why, you'll even have your purchased beamed down to you like in Star Trek. OK, not that fast. It will take a couple of days and the starship will say UPS or FedEx instead of USS Enterprise.

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