My stupidphone stopped working last Saturday morning; the keypad had become intermittent. I tried all the usual tricks -- restarting, removing the battery, reseating the SIM, cleaning the contacts, blowing out the internals with Perriair, but nothing worked. Since I had an important phone interview on Monday, I had no time to shop on the T-Mobile site. I had to go out and buy a phone in person.
Since my carrier is T-Mobile, my instinct was to go to one of the many local T-Mobile stores to shop for a phone. Had I thought more deeply about it, or done more research, I would have considered other, possibly better options such as Best Buy and Wal-Mart.
My expectation was to pay somewhere between $75-$175 for a new stupidphone. I do not want a smartphone; I have a netbook and a tablet and a low-cost non-contract talk/text plan that I like. I have no use for a smartphone with a minutes-long battery life and features I can't use because I don't want or need a data plan. I need, above all, a phone, not a game system or a portable computer. I can't have a device that needs to be charged every 8 hours in order to talk on it.
So I walked into the T-Mobile store, which was empty except for three employees, and shook hands with the first person I saw. This happened to be the manager. "My phone died, and I need to replace it. I don't want a smartphone, I just want an ordinary, old-style phone that does voice and text. Nothing else." He kind of smirked at me, then called over to a salesman who bore a striking resemblance to Jabba the Hutt due to an unfortunate accumulation of neck fat combined with a shaved head. With a slight hint of sarcasm, the manager shouted my unreasonable expectations across the room to him as if issuing a challenge.
Jabba waddled over and shook my hand. "I don't need a smartphone," I reiterated. "Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo, your Jedi tricks don't work on me, boy," I imagined him replying.
I was marched over to the ghetto section of the store where "economic" options were embarrassingly displayed. I was shown three options: a low-end smartphone with a pull-out keyboard for $250, a Samsung flip-phone that got great reviews for $130, and a Huawei piece of garbage that nobody ever buys for $100. Now I know how this works psychologically; I am supposed to be drawn to the middle option, which is itself overpriced, merely because my other two options are clearly unreasonable. However, $130 was within my budget, I liked the Samsung phone, and it was a brand I trusted. Just as I was finalizing my decision internally, Jabba motioned to the middle-class section of the Wall of Phones and mentioned that there were better phones there that had amazing options and good battery life.
I decided to humor him, since I wasn't quite ready to face the Rancor unarmed. He showed me a fancy new Nokia Lumia with Windows on it. "Mmm," I replied, "Very fancy." He proceeded to slip into his sales pitch, slithering further and further down the Wall of Phones until we were in the Donald Trump section. I have literally purchased working automobiles for less money than some of the phones he was showing me, and yet all I needed was to make phone calls and occasionally send text messages. Simply this and nothing more.
Then on to Android devices. "This one does HD video," he said, showing me a clip from The Avengers. "And," he continued in my imagination, "it serves drinks on my pleasure barge." I fiddled with the menus to feign interest. "Mmm," I replied, "Very fancy. But you see, I have a tablet that does all this, and I never do any of that on it. I just need a phone." I walked over to the ghetto section and pointed at the Samsung flip-phone. "I'll take that one."
Jabba shifted uncomfortably. "Why would you want that? Why would you pay that much money when you can get something better for free on a contract?"
I looked him in the eyes. "As I've explained, I just need a new phone. Don't want a smartphone. I want a stupidphone."
He whipped out a sheet of paper that had a grid with service contracts on it. "If you get the Windows phone that you liked over there, and sign up for a 20-month contract, we'll waive the activation fee and you can walk out of here today with this..." he unboxed a brand new Lumia and handed it to me. I gave it a cursory glance and said, "Mmm, yes, very fancy. Not interested." I handed it back to him.
"Well I guess we can put you on just a regular talk and text contract, if you really want that phone..."
I held up my hand to stop him. "Wait. I don't need a contract. I'm already on a T-Mobile plan that I like, and I don't want to switch. Look... I just want to take this phone," I showed him my old broken one, "And replace it with something that works. That's all. Nothing else."
Jabba the Hutt narrowed his wormy gaze. "I don't think we can do that."
I made no attempt to hide my shock. "What? Why?"
"Those phones there are for contracts only. For what you want to do, you need to buy one of the prepaid phones." He walked over to a small rack in the corner that had many boxes of three different phones displayed such that it looked like there were nine, but in fact it was just those three on different hooks. It took me a moment to realize that. The good news was, they were comparable to the ghetto phones. I selected the Samsung again, for $80 this time. "I'll take this one."
"Hmm," he said without enough actual concern to convince me of his sincerity, "I don't know if we can do that one. You might need to get this one," he pulled down the most expensive prepaid phone, which was a $150 smartphone. "Let me check," He walked into the back room and closed the door. It was at that moment that I realized that the manager was gone, and Jabba was going into the back to find him.
I awaited his return patiently. When he came back, he gave me a completely non-genuine look of apology and said that the only way it would work is if I bought the most expensive prepaid phone. Alternatively, I could bring him Solo and the Wookiee.
Most people would have given in by this point and just bought the phone that was recommended. I, however, never lost sight of my goal. While I was silently considering what to do, Jabba casually mentioned that I would also have to pay the activation fee. "What's that?" I asked. "It's the activation fee," he repeated. "Yes, I know, but what does it mean?"
Jabba furrowed his brow, fished another frog out of his nearby snack bowl, and swallowed it whole. "Activation. You have to pay it when you buy a phone."
"Pretend I just landed on this planet. What does the word 'activation' mean in the context of cell phones here?"
He refused to look at me. "It means you are activating a new plan."
Most people would be upset at this point. However, I did not have the luxury of being upset, and I certainly didn't want to carry that angst with me for the rest of the day, so I refocused on my goal. "Excuse me," I said in my adult voice -- my dog-training voice -- "I do not want a new plan. I will not buy a plan today, or a contract, no matter what you say or do. Not going to happen. Is that clear?" He did not reply. "All I need is a phone. No activation, no plan, no contract. Phone."
Jabba crossed his arms indignantly. "We don't sell phones here."
I laughed. "This is a T-Mobile store and I am an existing T-Mobile customer, and you're telling me that I can't buy a phone?"
"Not here, or in any other corporate-owned store. Maybe in one of the privately owned T-Mobile stores, or Wal-Mart or something."
I stared at him. "Wall full of phones here, phones everywhere in this store, and you're telling me that you cannot sell me one?"
"We are a service provider, we sell service plans, mainly. The phones are for people who buy plans."
At that point, I knew he was lying to me. I had a few options. I could call him a liar and be thrown into the Sarlacc pit, or I could refocus on my goal and try to salvage the operation. I did, after all, drive 45 minutes to get there and I absolutely needed to have a working phone with my old phone number by Monday morning.
I stood emotionless and shook my head. "That isn't right. Something about this just isn't right."
One of the most powerful things a person can do socially is to pay attention without responding. Try it sometime -- just look at someone attentively and non-threateningly, and say nothing. People do weird things in response. There are a variety of ways to modify this to achieve a goal. As a man, if you look at a woman and smile in a friendly way, she will say hello to you; your verbal greeting, while absent, was implied. As a journalist interviewing someone, when you don't speak, they keep on talking and reveal more information than they ordinarily would. In television journalism, this is called "the Mike Wallace pause," because he was first recognized for its effectiveness. You don't see it happen during his TV interviews because the long silences are edited out. And when you are in a situation where someone is being unreasonable with you, being peacefully attentive without speaking will tend to cause them to break down. So I stood there calmly and said nothing while I looked at him.
After about 10 seconds, Jabba the Hutt relented. "I don't know what we can do if you don't want a new plan."
The other sales associate, who had been standing in another part of the store, approached. "What's wrong?"
I pointed to my broken phone. "All I need to do is buy a new phone to replace this one. That's all. Apparently this is impossible."
She shrugged. "Oh, we can do that!"
Jabba the Hutt held up his hammy hands: "That's not what the manager told me. I can ask him again or something."
"Actually, why don't you let me talk to the manager? I'm sure we can work this out. I want to understand this policy of not selling phones."
So he shuffled off to retrieve the manager, who reluctantly came out of his office and greeted me. "We can't switch a plan on a prepaid phone, unfortunately," he said with genuine regret. "You'd have to buy one of the other phones over there at full price."
I pointed to the sand worm. "He just told me that this store doesn't sell phones to people. Is that true? And if so, is that your personal policy, a store policy, or a corporate T-Mobile policy?"
"Absolutely not... that is... no, there must have been some miscommunication there. I was told you wanted a specific prepaid phone here..."
I shook my head. "No, I never asked about prepaid phones. I wanted one of the phones over there on the Wall of Phones, but he told me that I couldn't buy one. I was not mistaken. I understood our conversation perfectly, it was made abundantly clear to me in simple language not even five minutes ago: This store does not sell phones, it only sells plans."
The manager walked with me toward the Wall of Phones while Jabba seethed behind the sales counter. I pointed to the Samsung. "I want that one." The manager ensured that I knew that it was in fact $130, and not $20 as the sign's giant lettering indicated with a tiny asterisk that explained that I would need a horrid contract to pay that lower price. "Yes, I know, I'm fine with that. I came in here expecting to pay full price for a phone. This is exactly what I want."
He turned to the female sales associate. "He wants the Samsung." She immediately retrieved one for me and brought me over to a kiosk where we would attempt to transfer my phone numbers from the old phone to the new one. Jabba the Hutt slithered into the back room with the manager. Once they were out of sight, she muttered something to me about how the sales people were on commission. "I understand, and I respect the fact that an upsell is part of the pitch, but I was very clear about my intentions from the moment I walked in the door."
Because the keypad wasn't working correctly, none of my contacts could be transferred. Knowing that I had just been through Sales Hell, the woman looked at me apologetically. "I'm really sorry, but I can't get it to work." I shrugged. "It's alright, I'll see if I can get the numbers off of it by hand later on, if the keypad kicks back in again. Thank you very much for helping me solve this problem."
She rang me out at her register and apologized again for the experience I'd had with Jabba. "It's no one's fault," I said; this was obviously not true, but I did not want to be antagonistic. I accomplished my goal and escaped the evil clutches of a vile gangster; there was no reason to gloat.