The 888s: Dial `O' For Opportunity

The new 888 toll-free exchange may not ring a bell, but wait until it does and it'll be too late. At the moment, small businesses can grab the vanity number of their choice for very little cost, an opportunity they've never had before.

In March, phone companies rolled out the 888 exchange, adding nearly 7 million toll-free numbers, a selection un-matched since 800 numbers began in 1967. Then, toll-free service required expensive dedicated lines. By the time technology brought the cost within reach of small budgets--a line now typically costs less than $10 a month, plus 15 cents to 30 cents a minute--most of the best numbers were taken.

"We've always wanted 1-800-SHREDIT, but couldn't get it," says Ron J. Sacco, chief executive of DataShred Corp. It has lived instead with the clumsy 30SHRED. But not anymore: Sacco's new 1-888-SHREDIT is among 169,602 lines reserved in the 888 exchange so far.

The lines have been slow to go because public awareness is so dim that taking an 888 number can actually hurt marketing. "We interviewed hundreds of people recently and found almost no one knew what an 888 number was," says Daniel Briere, president of TeleChoice Inc.

Just ask International Racing Systems Ltd., a small Indy-car school, which drove away customers with its new phone number-- 888-FORMULA. Ad readers instinctively dialed 800 and reached Similac instead.

Still, it's wise to claim an 888 number--at least for voice mail or employees on the road, says Mie-Yun Lee, editor of the Business Consumer Guide. "It costs less than a calling card," she points out.

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