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Tiny Phone Rings Up Whopping Sales

September 04, 1997|CARLA HALL | 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."

*

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.

*

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."

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