Move over, Ma Bell, here come the telephone boutiques.
Just imagine, said Joy Kearney, manager of The Telephone Look, a nationwide chain of phone stores stretching from her 4-month-old boutique in Rockville all the way to chic Beverly Hills, Calif.
Consider, said Phil Ault, owner of Stanwood Electronics, the potential of phone accessories "so unique and so advanced" that their manufacture should enable him to expand his five Washington-Baltimore outlets into a national network of boutiques.
Today, in the metropolitan area, you can buy a phone that includes a short plastic model of Mickey Mouse holding a receiver in his right hand. There are clear acrylic untis that reveal the inside of the phone and carry names like Venus, Diamente, Petite and Periscope.
Some boutiques sells the Cloisonne, Lido and Chromefones, all of which resemble elegant cut-off bowling balls. Others have the fold-up Cricket, old payphones (complete with keys), and even a phone hidden in a custommade carved walnut case with sterling silver, turquoise, African ivory, and other precious stone inlays - all for $1,800.
On the other end of the scale is the Ericofon, a comtemporary Swedish phone, which sells for under $50.
Telephones have suddenly become big - and competitive - business. Even Ma Bell (American Telephone and Telegraph) is planning to add 500 phone display centers in the next four months to the 1,000 it has already opened. Two years ago AT&T had only a handful of boutiques.
There are many explanations for the surging consumer demand for decorator phones and auxiliary gadgets such as "call diverters" and answering machines. Some say it is a rising affluence, others looks to increasing dependence on the phone. Some blame faddishness, others detect a new style consciousness.
Everyone agrees that the crucial spark was a November, 1975, Federal Communications Commission ruling that loosened, AT&T's monopoly grip over the telephone.
Many boutique owners predict a boom in sales and the permanent change in American habits this fall, when they expect the U.S. Supreme Court to permit full implementation of the FCC 1975 ruling.
"The initial (sales) kick will be gigantic," said Robert Winkler, president of TeleConcepts, Inc., a West Hartford, Conn., company that makes sleek phones out of wood, acrylic and chrome.
"It's something we're all going to have to be educated about," Kearney cautioned a customer last week. "Ten years from now, almost everyone's going to own at least one phone" - rather than rent phones from AT&T as is presently the case, she said.
If the Supreme Court decides not to hear AT&T's appeal of the 1975 FCC ruling, the economics of owning a phone would improve markedly for consumers and provide the impetus for the sales boom the boutique owners expect. Consumers would be able to buy FCC-approved non-AT&T phones and use them in the Bell system without having to pay a monthly extension fee.
Customers of C&P Telephone in the metropolitan area presently pay between $1.14 and $1.35 a month per extension phone, Bell or non-Bell, and about $15 for an inspection of any non-Bell phone they might buy and want to install.
If the consumer wants to use a phone that is found to be incompatible with the Bell system, he must pay a modification charge that could run above $50.
Furthermore, any such modification makes the "guts" of the phone the property of AT&T, although it also guarantees free service. So if the phone owner wants to move, he usually can keep only the shell of the phone.
"That's my biggest complaint," said Chet Zeller of Louisiville, Ky., trying to explain his lack of enthusiasm for phone-owning as his wife and mother admired the decorator models at The Telephone Look. "You spend all the money on the phone, and then you spend so much to put it in - it's a luxury." All of this would change if the Supreme Court upholds the FCC.
While phone boutiques have appeared with great frequency in recent months, many consumers are reluctant to leave the Ma Bell fold. "I guess I've been brainwashed by Bell," said Zelle. "I kind of think they've got more at stake and involved in their phone making. They ought to put out a better product."
Many boutique customers are ignorant of the law, and some merchants are either unclear about the law or prefer not to raise the subject at all for fear of scaring off customers. Nonetheless, most customers are intrigued by the idea of owning their own decorator phone.
Donna Ferriello of Gaithersburg visited The Telephone Look last week to see the small Princess phone her 11-year-old daughter Stephanie wanted as a gift. But Ferriello also had her sights on a $160 cradle phone with a teak base. "I would make your conversation more fun, make it more special," like drinking wine from a wine glass, she explained.
Michael Persico, who already owns a wedgewood decorator phone, is now looking for a phone for his bathroom. Persico is renovating a house near Dupont Circle and just opened a law practice that forces him to scramble for clients.
"It never seems to fail that when I get in the shower, someone calls," Persico said, explaining his desire for what he calls a "necessary luxury."
According to Kearney, tourists and foreigners - those least familiar with decorator phones - are among her best customers. One man from Oman spent nearly $2,000 in cash one day at The Telephone Look and had the phones be bought air freighted home.
Antonio Lagden, a Brazilian working in the nation's embassy here, brought several friends to Kearney's store last week to browse. He said he would buy a decorator phone "for the same reason you buy fancy shirts or dance with a fancy girl." He did not explain further.
Pam Quilici, a 17-year-old congressional intern from Reno, Nev., comes from a home filled with standard, black, dial phones. To Quilici, a phone boutique is a "fantastic" new experience. If she had enough money, she said, she would buy the Mickey Mouse phone. "I love that, it's adorable."
Despite the enthusiasm of their customers, sales volume at the local boutiques can not yet be described as booming. "This is a very difficult business. It's not like selling a dress. That's why we see our customers two or three times" before they make a purchase, said Kearney.
For this reason, Jim Prettyman, coowner of the Telephone Warehouse in Georgetown, one of the orginal boutiques here, does not expect a sales surge this fall. So he plans to continue to rely on a select group of buyers: young workers couples earning about $50,000 a year who "want something that's unique, that makes them look affluent, that makes them stand out, that makes them feel like they have arrived."
Ault of Stanwood Electronics sees similar problems in selling only telephones. "If I had to rely on telephone, I would have to telephone (exorbitant) prices," he said. Instead, Ault has emphasized electronics hookup gadgets for phones that bring to more commercial customers and more money per sale.
This equipment, which was freed from costly ATT restrictions in June, 1976, when a U.S. Court of Appeals lifted a stay on half the FCC's 1975 decision, allows phone users to acquire an array of attachable devices.
There is a $4,500 machine that will automatically poll or deliver a recorded sales pitch to up to 1,000 phone numbers. One $1,100 setup anwers a phone, pages its owner when emergency messages are left by a caller, and allows the onwer to hear the messages over a phone at another location.
Ault, who recently opened a store at 1660 L St. NW, also sells a $795 machine that allows a caller to make conference calls, to divert an incoming call to another number automatically, or to patch into another phone and call a second number from it.
Another machine stores up to 64 phone numbers and redials them at the touch of a button: still another, a small metal cylinder called a "Hello phone," will broadcast a phone caller's voice throughout a room when it is placed next to the receiver.
Like most telephone boutiques, Ault's stores offer service on phones and auxiliary equipment they sell. The phone company will service only its own hardware.
ATT, meanwhile, is not standing still. Their own market studies have shown "a substantial number of customers are interested in buying a telephone, particularly the affluent," according to Marilyn Laurie, as ATT press relations supervisor in New York City.
Similar market readings have already pulled department stores like Montgomery Ward into the telephone selling business, and other large retailers, such as Sears, say they will step up phone sales if AT&T loses in court.
However, officials of Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company, the Washington area firm, which ATT controls, believe that only a "very great minority" of their customers will want to buy a phone outright instead of renting or buying the outer shell of a Bell phone.
To try to meet the competition, ATT has been opening phone sales centers and offering its "design line" phones, many of them similar. And if the court decision goes against ATT, said Web Chamberlin, news service supervisor for C&P, "we might look more aggressively at ways to compete in the home telephone market."
The telephone company hopes to sway the Supreme Court with its arguments, including the contention that it will cost ATT $88 million to implement a phone registration program proposed by the FCC to ensure that noncompany phones are compatible with ATT's phone system. In addition, the company says that the use of non-ATT phones poses a threat to the quality of the national phone system, about 80 per cent of which ATT controls.
Paradoxically, the phone company's own-self-congratulations on the national system it has developed are matched almost word for word by praise from operators of independent boutiques.
"I love the telephone company," said Ault. "I couldn't live without them."