Dialing In to Cell-Phone Chic

The cultural icons are so hot they're showing up everywhere from candy stores to jewelry shops to crime scenes

Seems like everywhere you look these days, you see someone with a mobile phone glued to an ear. But have you come across cell-phone earrings? Mobile-phone designs on clothing? Cell-phone candy, charms, and trinkets? You probably will: They're all part of a new fashion trend that's sweeping the land.

Consider these examples:

• Children and adults alike are snapping up chocolate cell phones and bubble gum dispensed out of plastic phone-shaped boxes. Companies making the products include such heavy hitters as Nestlé and Spain's Chupa Chups.

• A miniature pill box that "cleverly disguises itself as a cellular phone" has become a popular party favor for wedding and bridal showers. It retails for $15 on FavorsDirect.com.

• A recent cover of the tony New Yorker magazine featured a Japanese woman wearing a traditional kimono and holding a fan made out of cell phones.

Everything from earrings and pendants to radios are now being sold in phone-shaped versions. When ShopNBC.com five months ago began offering gold cell-phone charms adorned with topaz and diamonds, it tapped into a gold mine. In early March, the retailer sold more than 100 at $69.99 each during a TV segment lasting less than two minutes.

The cell phone is rapidly becoming one of the most powerful symbols for all that's cool, young, and on the move. It's "a cultural icon," says Victor Chu, fashion technologist at Parsons School of Design in New York. "It's way beyond a piece of technology now."

Nearly half of the U.S. population now owns a cell phone. For kids and adults alike, a phone-shaped accessory carries a clear message. "What's hanging off your wrist is a way to communicate who you are, that you are open to communication," says Steven Goldsmith, general merchandising manager at ShopNBC.com, owned by ValueVision Media (VVTV ).


  The trend dates back to at least early 2000, when IBM made a splash with its attempt to create digital jewelry, such as earrings that contained tiny, working cell phones. The company's insight that consumers would start viewing real cell phones as fashion accessories now seems prescient. Unfortunately, the resulting products proved too tiny to function well enough, says Daniel Russell, a senior manager at IBM.

In the end, the real impetus for cell-phone chic probably comes from teenagers, for whom having the right mobile phone is a prime dividing line between fashion innovators and hopeless dorks. First, young users began customizing their phones with wildly colored faceplates and specially programmed rings. Then, many began decorating their phones with straps or key chains -- anything from Native American art to doggie faces or little plastic toilets.

Rhinestones became a popular phone adornment, and some teens began to use multiple interchangeable faceplates to change their phones to match particular moods. Some kids now routinely match their cell phones with their outfits or sports shoes.


  These devices are so central to the lifestyles of today's high schoolers that researchers are starting to refer to them as the Mobile Generation, rather than Generation Y. Talking on the phone is one of their favorite activities, says Catherine Stellin, director of marketing for Youth Intelligence, a New York-based firm specializing in youth market research.

The average teen talks for six hours a week on a regular phone and two hours a week on a mobile phone, according to researcher Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU). However, the latter number is sure to rise because only 37% of teens own cell phones (up from 16% in 1999), vs. 50% for the rest of the population, says TRU. Last Christmas, cell phones were teens' No. 1 purchase, according to researcher Jupiter Media Metrix.

Of course, not every young person can afford a cell phone. While wireless service providers in Europe have long offered inexpensive prepaid plans targeting teens and customers with poor credit, their U.S. counterparts have shunned such approaches. Average revenues per prepaid customer can be as much as 50% lower than those on regular cell-phone plans, says Dylan Brooks, an analyst with Jupiter.

As Sprint PCS found out the hard way, making a profit on prepaid is tough. The country's fourth-largest wireless company last year rolled out such a program but had to drastically modify it -- requiring a $125 deposit after bad debt began piling up.


  The average regular plan costs $60 a month -- out of the reach of less-affluent teens. Marketers speculate that those who can't afford the real thing get the second best: look-alikes. Phone-shaped candy and candy boxes are examples cited by Brooks. Candy Warehouse, a leading Web candy store, sells 300 or more packs of cell-phone bubble gum per month at $3.25 apiece, says co-owner Karl W. Hoff. At FunShop.com, jokesters can even buy a "shocking cell phone" for $17.99 that gives users a mild jolt from a battery.

Certainly, this phenomenon could prove a quickly fading fad, like the shoulder pads and big hair that were so popular in the 1980s. So far, however, cell-phone chic seems to be a trend with staying power. A few months ago, police in Europe discovered the first cell-phone gun: It looks like a regular phone but can fire four rounds of .22-caliber bullets with a touch on the standard keypad. When it comes to cell phones, even criminals seem to be getting with it.

By Olga Kharif in Portland, Ore.

Edited by Thane Peterson

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