Matthew Yglesias at Slate wrote a year and a half ago about T-Mobile up-ending the cell phone industry by starting to sell phones and phone service separately. Yglesias wrote about the prevailing cell phone business model up to that point:
The customer walks out thrilled with the deal he got on his phone. Only later, when his ridiculous, complicated, and obscenely high bill comes, does he realize he has been fleeced.
The subsidy model is basically a scam, but it only arose thanks to our own collective mental failings. A phone-buying public used to getting high-end devices for $200 or $300 may simply balk at the discovery that a pocket-sized computer’s actual price is twice that or more. Until now, limited competition in the industry has let us optimistically believe that the American phone-buying public is the victim of unscrupulous business practices. But if T-Mobile can’t make this work, the lesson will be that the real fault lies with ourselves.
I always thought the underlying question was more complicated than that. First of all, if customers really realized that they had been "fleeced" after the first of their 24 monthly bills came in, that scam should only work on a particular customer for... two years, and then they would be wiser the second time around. But plenty of users stay with Verizon and AT&T year after year, getting new free phone "upgrades" that lock them into extended contracts. And besides, are so many phone buyers really that dumb, that they would take a "free" phone while entering into a two-year recurring billing contract, without thinking about how much that would commit them to paying in the long run? This is why I think that explanation doesn't meet the criteria of making realistic assumptions about how easy it is to fool the public.
Or if you think people really are that gullible, then the obvious question is why that tactic doesn't work for other products sold just a few feet away at the same Best Buy. While cars and other big-ticket items are often advertised for "No money down and just 24 monthly payments of $X", the vast majority of laptops and other expensive consumer goods are simply advertised with their sale price, and if you want to pay for them in installments, you can work that out at the time of purchase. If consumers are really dumb enough to be swindled into overpaying for their cell phones over two years, why aren't laptops and other items advertised in terms of two-year monthly payment contracts? This explanation makes inconsistent assumptions about how dumb we are.
And it can't be as simple as "Some people don't have the money to pay for the phone up front," because most places you enter into a cell phone service contract, will also let you buy the phone outright and set up an installment plan to pay it off (which of course is basically the same thing as paying it off over your two-year contract). You have to get a credit check to get on an installment plan, but you have to get a credit check to get on a cell service contract too. So that can't be the complete explanation either.
And then there's the twin mystery of why T-Mobile finds it profitable to do the opposite and avoid contracts entirely. This, at least, has a plausible explanation -- T-Mobile, with the smallest coverage area of the major cell providers, was looking for a way to differentiate itself from competitors that didn't involve slashing prices in proportion to their smaller coverage. So their phones don't work out in the boonies, but you know exactly what you're paying for when you buy the phone, and when you buy the service plan.
But why does everyone else continue to sell phones on contracts? Why do we still fall for it? And why don't the same tricks work for other expensive electronic goods?
The best explanation I've heard so far involves a combination of the following:
- Cell phones, unlike cars and laptops, don't look like they should cost as much as they do. (Electronics engineers know that of course it's harder and more expensive to fit fancy circuitry into a smaller space, but regular phone buyers instinctively think smaller should be cheaper.) So people would instinctively balk at the sticker price of a smartphone, even if it were payable in installments so they didn't have to have the cash up front. As a result, they pay instead through a more expensive service contract, even though the total ends up being more than if they had just bought the phone and paid in installments.
- Cell phones, unlike cars and laptops, are only useful when tied to recurring purchases of another product, the cell phone service plan. This presents an opportunity to confuse buyers who have no idea how much that service plan should actually cost, so they don't realize how much the service plan fee has been inflated to cover the cost of the phone. A laptop, by contrast, may only be useful when connected to the Internet, but there isn't a one-to-one pairing of laptops with Internet service contracts because multiple laptops in the same household usually share the same WiFi bill. And all cars require gas, but it would be hard to sell someone a cheap subsidized car and then require them to buy all of their gas from one overpriced vendor for the next two years.
These explanations are at least internally consistent, so they could be true. Who knows if they actually are true. Can you think of others?
The good news is that other cell phone companies are catching on: When I called the local AT&T store to ask if they had any "free" phones that came with a two-year contract, the salesman immediately steered me towards purchasing the phone and the plan separately, T-Mobile-style, saying it was cheaper. He said I could get a Nokia 920 for free with a two-year contract to pay $40/month, or I could buy the phone outright and pay it off in installments of $11/month, while meanwhile using the service plan for $25/month, for a lower combined price of $36/month. The local Verizon store said I could get the latest Droid for free with a 2-year contract paying $75/month, or I could pay the phone off in installments of $16/month while getting a discounted non-contract service plan for $65/month. So Verizon in this case doesn't actually make it cheaper to buy the phone outright and pay it off in installments, but at least it's a step in the right direction. (When I bought a phone from Verizon two years ago, they didn't offer any discount on their monthly service plan even if you bought the device outright. It has always been possible to buy cell phones at a full retail price, but of course it didn't make sense unless you would get a corresponding discount on the service plan.)
So this is good news, but it makes the relevant question even more difficult: Why is it that cell phone companies previously found it profitable only to sell phones on contracts, and now find it profitable to move slightly in the opposite direction? With any luck, soon the question will be a historic one: "How come cell phone companies used to confuse us about what we were really paying for our cell phones, and why did we put up with it?"