The 1980s have spawned another disposable item to add to cigarette lighters, transistor radios and pens -- the telephone.
But consumers are beginning to apply some standards, shifting away from equipment with a fleeting lifespan.
Only a year ago, the market was flooded with cheap, no-name phones costing an average of $5, but the phones didn't work and customers got angry.
"A year ago, you saw an influx of a lot of cheap phones, selling below $20 and for as little as $3.95," said Mike Granieri, a spokesman for AT&T Consumer Products, a division of American Telephone & Telegraph Co. that manufactures and repairs phones for residential use.
Until the breakup of the Bell System, AT&T provided most telephones, with the cost built into the rate structure, and the phones seemed to last forever. Now more customers buy their phones, and when they break, the phones are simply replaced.
"There was tremendous consumer disenchantment" with the initial cheap phones, Granieri said. Consumers "found out when you dropped the phone it busted, servicing they had come to expect in a leased environment was not the same -- all these factors combined into a backlash in the market," Granieri said.
"The cost of having to repair the phone was out of line with the price" and repair parts were often simply unavailable, he said.
"They were literally disposable phones," said David Mann, vice president of The Public Phone Stores, an independent retail chain. "That product has taken itself out of the marketplace, people won't buy them anymore -- they went back to Old Reliable" -- the higher-quality and more expensive phones.
Nevertheless, manufacturers say they are not making Old Reliable like they used to, and, because the price still is relatively cheap, people still tend to throw away a phone costing up to $30 when it breaks.
Prior to the breakup of the Bell System, AT&T phones were built to last at least 20 years, Granieri said. "Back when we were leasing phones, the phones were engineered to minimize service calls . . . but a company cannot stay competitive and engineer phones that are meant to last forever," he said. Granieri claims AT&T still engineers the highest quality phones on the market.
Web Chamberlin, an Annapolis resident who happens to work for Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co., is throwing his broken $34 AT&T phone away.
"My guess is to repair it could cost $35 or $40, and I just don't want to spend that money on it," Chamberlin said. "I want something more up-to-date, but I'm not interested in a designer phone. I want something that's efficient and I'm going to make an economic decision." Chamberlin wants to spend up to $40.
Other reasons for throwing away phones rather than having them serviced have to do with rapidly changing technology and therefore more options for less money.
"Because of declining prices in the competitive market, it's often cost-effective to buy another phone instead of getting the old one repaired," said Casey Dworkin, research director at The Yankee Group, a market research and consulting firm based in Boston.
"It's fresh from the factory and you might end up getting more features than you would for the repair of an old phone," he said.
Nowadays, consumers are beginning to spend a little more for quality, said Dworkin. "Over 50 percent of consumers buy phones that cost $60 and under," he said. Customers must spend between $30 and $50 to buy a good-quality phone that lasts 20 to 30 years, he said.
According to retailers, customers are spending more on phones and replacing them more quickly as technology changes. "Technology is changing so that people want more features," said the Public Phone Stores' Mann. "What's popular is style, color, performance features like memory dial, and hand-free speaker phones."
Barry Wendell, a Mount Rainier, Md., resident, decided to spend more for a phone and get a lot more for his money. When the ringer on his $10 model broke, Wendell ended up buying a Japanese Mura phone for $70. "If you are going to spend money on phones, you might as well buy a good one. . . . It has 16 programmable memory keys, a speaker phone, and the ring sounds better."
"We have customers come in all the time and buy a new phone instead of fixing it," Mann said. "But chances are if a $20 phone breaks, people will buy another better one." CAPTION: Picture, William Jordan holds a $14.95 phone above an $8.88 one on Public Phone Store at 17th and L Sts. NW. By James M. Thresher--The Washington Post