Tiny Phone Rings Up Whopping Sales

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Never has being small and black been so trendy.

But then, rarely has a tiny cellular phone fueled so much lust, especially when the asking price might top your monthly rent.

The 1 1/2-year-old Motorola StarTAC weighs in at an anorexic 3 ounces and a fraction. It's thinner than a wallet, fits roughly into the palm of your hand and opens like a clam. It's the latest example--following computer notebooks smaller than magazines and television sets as flat as briefcases--of the miniaturization of status objects and the near-magical allure of high-tech goods.

Aerospace designer Andy Rowen bought one as soon as he could, upgrades with each new model and now owns four for his small Napa Valley company.

When he acquired the phone, he passed it around to his colleagues. "Each one of us would grab this thing and just hold it like the orb and say, 'How did they do this?' " said Rowen, who was moved to compare the StarTAC to the classic Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair. ("Those will never ever be dated.")

Like most cell phones, this one will dial a number, redial it, store it and tell you when its battery is low. Unlike most cell phones, this one is sold not just on particleboard shelves in lowly phone stores but also on a sleek counter in the Tracey Ross boutique, alongside fashionably trendy slip skirts, in the chic Sunset Plaza area of Los Angeles.

Pull it out and onlookers may coo over its small size. Decide to buy it and be prepared--if you want it in highly prized black--to shell out at least $1,300. (Yes, that's with activation.) All models of the StarTAC come in gray, but black is available only for the most expensive and elite version.

In a world where most cell phones are free, costing only the monthly usage bill, Rowen didn't hesitate to pay substantially more for color.

"We're industrial designers. We have to have the black," he said. "The gray says, 'Please, I wanna be black.' " He waxes rhapsodically: "It's just so stealthy."

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When the Good Guys electronics chain began selling the low-end, modestly appointed StarTAC model for $250 to $299 a few months ago, the phone sold out in all Southern California stores in three days.

"Personally, that's pretty much all I've been selling," said Riaz Yacoob, a salesperson at the Good Guys on Pico Boulevard in West L.A.

The StarTAC stores 99 numbers and calls them at the press of a button. When it redials a number, it rings when the number connects. (At least here's one lust object that calls you back.) Some models hold two phone lines. The most elaborate version, the StarTAC 8600--on the market since April--has an answering machine and a voice recorder.

But function alone can't account for its popularity, particularly since there's no difference in sound quality. More likely is the fact that we can't help being wooed: We're wired to like small.

"There is something very appealing about small things," said Ray Browne, founder of the department of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. "One, they remind us of childhood when everything was miniature. Childhood was a safe time when everything was fun and play. Secondly, we have a sense of superiority and strength when we handle small things. It's a kind of giantism."

And third, Browne said, there's just a sense of wonder: "We constantly marvel that a thing so small can be so powerful."

And convenient. Architect Michael Kovac slips his in his jeans pocket. "People don't even believe it's real," he said. "They think it's from a Barbie play set."

As more people get cell phones--"I see busboys carrying cell phones," sniffs one StarTAC owner--strata of users develop and the costliest phones become luxury items for people with the most disposable income.

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The StarTAC seems to marry electronic aesthetics with pure snob appeal. And although that combination is a potent lure anywhere, it's the Holy Grail in Los Angeles.

Witness the proliferation of StarTACs in places like the patio of the ultra-hip Mondrian Hotel on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood and the gym floor of Sports Club / LA. Television producers, real estate agents and all kinds of business executives tote the tiny StarTAC.

"These people are into toys," said one salesperson who sells cellular air time to well-heeled business folk. "They've got Porsches. They love all the latest and greatest. I call them wannabe rock stars."

In sheer numbers, it's not the best-selling Motorola phone. "The flip phone family at this time is still the volume leader," said David Pinsky, Motorola's public relations manager. "But in the cool factor, it's the leader."

Motorola has worked hard to position the StarTAC as an accessory of the rich and famous. Like fashion designers and Beverly Hills jewelers who lend stars gowns and gems on Oscar night, hoping for some publicity and exposure, Motorola made a bid to get its StarTAC seen and carried. At last year's Oscar ceremony, a Motorola representative waited backstage to award five already-activated StarTACs to the five top Oscar winners, with the category engraved on each phone.

The company did something similar when it experimented with placing the phones in the Tracey Ross boutique on Sunset, "a nontraditional location that has an audience that wants the latest," Pinsky explained.

Motorola couldn't have picked a place that more exudes Hollywood hipness, with its funky velvet and animal-print sofas and chairs and a reputation for catering to the entertainment industry. The store sells an eclectic mix of women's clothes, baby items and gifts to customers who often idle in the store, schmoozing with owner Ross.

At $1,350, the black StarTAC 8600 is the most expensive item in the store.

"Some days we sell none. Some days we sell three or four," said salesperson Janey Lopaty, "which is incredible for a $1,300 phone."

Among the store's more prominent StarTAC customers: Farrah Fawcett, Melanie Griffith and Def Jam Entertainment head Russell Simmons--the undisputed king of cell phones in L.A.

"He must have 10 phones," said store manager Karen Zambos, producing a snapshot of Simmons cradling one StarTAC to his ear while he dials a number on another.

Zambos doesn't blink when you mention that the StarTAC is sold elsewhere for hundreds less in its gray color.

"It's all about the black one," she said bluntly.

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Only Motorola's "VIP customers," who get their phones directly from Motorola, get black phones. (The phones supplied to the Tracey Ross store are part of Motorola's direct sales program, so they are black as well.)

The top-of-the-line phone costs $1,795. For that you get the latest and best-equipped StarTAC in black as well as various accessories and extra batteries. You also get access to the newest StarTAC upgrades before they trickle down to the rest of the public, and a visit from a salesperson who "will come out to your house and personally program in your 99 favorite numbers," boasted David Gutman, director of product strategy and business operations for the Libertyville, Ill.-based Motorola.

Upgrading quickly is crucial to VIP customers. Ask Rowen, the industrial designer.

Rowen, who built himself a car phone in high school and had the StarTAC seemingly minutes after it debuted at a consumer electronics show in January 1996, has upgraded his way through four StarTACs and bought another three for colleagues in his company.

"We're very much into minimalist stuff," said Rowen, the 34-year-old owner of Tactical Aerospace Corp. "I love it because it's a tool that works." He denies that he suffers from status lust, saying his instincts simply put him ahead of the crowd.

Practical as he may claim to be, Rowen wouldn't have dreamed of saving himself several hundred dollars by getting a gray-colored StarTAC.

Gray StarTAC owners dismiss his disdain.

"If people are going to buy black, it's all status," said Good Guys salesperson Yacoob, who owns as well as sells the bottom-of-the-line gray StarTAC 6000. "I couldn't care less if it has an answering machine. Charcoal gray is, like, perfect."

As with most cool consumer things, the prices of the StarTAC models in gray sold in retail outlets are beginning to drop. The top-of-the-line StarTAC 8600 in gray will probably run about $800 to $1,000.

Some people who spent a huge amount as Motorola VIP customers are miffed to see it advertised for so much less. Architect Kovac spent $2,000 last year on his black Motorola VIP StarTAC 8500--which is not even the latest model. "Given a choice, I would have picked black," he said. "But I wouldn't have spent $1,500 extra on black."

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