The Bizarre, Misleading World of Cell Phone Prices

By  |  Thursday, November 13, 2008 at 6:09 pm

curvecurveHow much does a new cell phone cost? How much do you save by committing to a contract? If there are savings to be had, how substantial are they? These would seem to be simple questions. They should be simple questions. But the strange, sneaky games that phone carriers play make it startlingly tough to get answers.

I was reminded of this when I checked out pricing for the BlackBerry Storm earlier today and found Verizon trumpeting a price that involved filing paperwork and waiting for a $50 debit card to show up in the mail. Rebates and gift card offers should be treated as gravy, not subtracted from the price you pay–they’re a hassle even when you get ’em, and it’s far too easy to forget to file for them. So I decided to do a little more digging at the sites of major phone purveyors to see just how clearly they say what customers are going to pay.

I picked the BlackBerry Curve for this experiment, since it’s available in similar versions almost everywhere, and checked out how much it would cost at, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. (I didn’t attempt to factor in the cost of service plans or determine which deal was best–I’m a journalist, not a masochist.) After the jump, the ugly results.

AMAZON: When I found a Curve (with T-Mobile service) on Amazon, I had to go leap through the “Click here to see the price” hoop. Which isn’t Amazon’s fault–it’s a requirement that manufacturers force on the company when it undercuts list prices. But it seems like a needless bit of artifice given that the phone’s price was shown in the search results I saw before I got to the page on the Curve. I do like the giant “Conditional $250 Discount” box, which is so blunt about the deal that it almost doesn’t sound worth it.


Once you click to see the price, Amazon says that the Curve costs…a penny. With any other seller, that would be the price after rebate. In this case, it’s the price before a $100 rebate. Yup–the final after-rebate price is negative $99.99. Amazing. And I can’t quibble with Amazon’s labeling, which is a model of clarity, even if the deal itself is weird.


AT&T: Props to Ma Bell (are we still allowed to call her that?) for a pleasingly straightforward presentation. The listing says what you’ll pay with no contract, what you’ll pay with a contract, what the rebate is, and what the price after rebate is. This is the only company I’d grade as an A.


SPRINT: This listing never mentions the amount you’ll need to fork over to Sprint to get the phone ($199.99) and treats the post-rebate price as the price. It also mentions hefty “instant savings” of $370 which are predicated on a regular price of $569.99. Which would be a heck of a lot of money to shell out for a Curve given that other carriers say it lists for as little as $329.99. (You wonder if Sprint considered a regular price of $5,000,000 so it could tout instant savings of $4,999.801.)


T-MOBILE: This listing, like Sprint’s, never mentions the amount of money which the carrier expects you to hand over to get a phone. The “instant discount” sounds less  than Sprint’s “instant savings,” but that’s only because T-Mobile’s suggested price for the Curve is $120 less than Sprint’s; the final price in both cases is $199.99. Also, shouldn’t T-Mobile mention here somewhere that this price requires a two-year contract?

And come to think of it, why does T-Mobile say that the Curve’s suggested retail price is $449.99? Amazon, which sells Curves with T-Mobile service, says the list price is $349.99. Somebody’s off by a hundred bucks, it would seem.


VERIZON: I don’t like the fact that Verizon declares the after-rebate price to be “Your Price”–“Price After Rebate” would be far better. On the plus side, it does state the price before rebate, and doesn’t hype instant savings. Actually, it doesn’t even mention the phone’s full price unless you choose “Month to Month” in the “Pricing for:” drop-down menu. (You can also see the price for a one-year contract, an option that other sites don’t seem to mention at all.)



Can we come to some conclusions here?

1) List and/or suggested prices for cell phones should be real, and nobody should ever feel the need to be suspicious that the price has been inflated in order to increase “instant savings”;

2) Every price listing for a cell phone must include the price you’ll pay to buy the phone–before rebate–and that should be the price that’s identified as…well, as the price;

3) When rebates are offered, there must be at minimum a link to a clear discussion of the policies, including deadlines for filing paperwork;

4) If a contract is required, that should be stated. Including the duration.

Anybody out there want to tell me that I’m being unreasonably picky?



6 Comments For This Post

  1. other Says:

    Umm, are you kidding

    ALL of them

    Verizon is the only one that doesn’t…
    But big red doesn’t have to people will gladly pay more for the little devil.
    2. umm again the same companys do..//
    3. Umm also again
    4. Ummm WOW this writer cant read or didn’t do ANY research.

    WOW, this is just stupid..

  2. Harry McCracken Says:

    Other: Neither T-Mobile nor Sprint tells you the price you’ll hand over to them to get the phone on a two-year contract–just the list price, and the price after rebate, assuming you get it. But not the amount that’ll show up on your receipt and credit card statement. What other product is there on the planet that doesn’t provide that info in a straightforward fashion?


  3. StevePR104 Says:

    You’ve not even come close to the wonderful world of resellers. Try this one:

    It’s $49 for the phone….but only a one-year deal with T-Mobile. And don’t forget, can get an unlock key after 90 days, meaning that after a year, you’re free to take your BlackBerry anywhere you want.

  4. Marina Says:

    Thanks for providing information and prices of different variety of shopping product. I need this info because i am using online shopping services.

  5. Leigh Says:

    They don’t disclose all the fees so you won’t know how much you are being cheated until it’s too late and once you sign that contract you stuck with them. It’s not only the cost of the phone you should be looking at. According to consumer action 2009 cell phone contracts with company’s such as Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile are becoming more and more expensive and there is nothing we can do about it. If you don’t have an expensive unlimited cell phone plan you may end up paying overage fees of up to 45 cents per minute. All the contract company’s just decided to up there text messages to more than 20 cents per message, we paid 10 cents in 2005 and this rise is unjustified in relation to inflation or their costs of delivering the message. So if you don’t like the new charges you can terminate the contract early but only if you are prepared to pay between $150-$200 in termination fees and that is only available for some contracts in their second year. The other very scary thing about contract phones is that after your contract time is up they just renew the contract without notifying you so if you don’t pay attention and cancel the contract in writing and with a notice period you’ll find yourself roped into another two years of exorbitant bills. I also discovered that these contract companies have been cheating immigrants with international calling cards.
    I would think long and hard before signing a contract in this volatile economy, you would do better to go out and get a prepaid wireless contract that will cost you a fraction of the price. I’ve bought a Tracfone and I’m saving money every month, I hear that Net 10 is also a good option.

  6. TelefoaneMobile Says:

    Although all this makes sense, the situation in the US is far better than the one in Europe.
    Back home in Romania I would have paid 300 euro for a Blackberry Curve with subscription…

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