Rosie Millard: Thrifty Living

Mind your pounds and queues at the mobile phone shop
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The Independent Online

I'M STANDING in a queue at Carphone Warehouse. It must be one of the nation's most beloved shops, judging by the position on the "rich list" of its CEO, Charles Dunstone, and also by the astounding amount of people prepared to take up a lengthy position in a branch waiting for someone to serve them.

Have I been wooed in by the Hot Summer Sale! sign outside? No. I am intending to reclaim my new Nokia phone, which may or may not have got rained on, and, either way, has not been the same since. I learn my phone is without hope. "Totally broken," says the man. But it was only two months old. Surely there is some warranty? Not with "water damage", apparently. What, from a few raindrops? He shakes his head. "Because you had no insurance on it, there is nothing we can do." No way to prove anything, anyway, because there is no engineer at the Islington branch. That's the last time I bother with "priceless" family snaps on my mobile. All gone. "Didn't you print them out?" says my assistant. No.

Never mind, I think thriftily, at least we are in the middle of the Hot Summer Sale! And here is a phone which I can buy for £9.99. There's no camera on it but I'm fed up with photos you can lose in a trice. I'll take it.

"It actually costs £19.99 because you have to have £10 of credits," says the man. But I am already paying, by direct debit, for a contract taken out with O2, which gives me 600 minutes of talk-time per month. "Nothing to do with it," says the man. "These are locked phones - you have to join another network for this price."

At this juncture, a sweet, old granny walks in. White hair, chintz dress, pink lipstick. Lovely. "I want a very easy phone for this lady," says the young man on her arm. My assistant dives to help her and points out the £10 (£19.99) phone. "You can't go wrong at that price, can you?" quavers the granny.

Lady, you can. If I want to keep my telephone number and my original contract (which is set in stone for 18 months), I have to buy a handset not already linked up to a service provider. All at once, the bill vaults from something very much in the Hot Summer Sale to something very much without it.

I also dimly recall that on a previous mission to the queue of Carphone Warehouse, I was persuaded to buy a Bluetooth apparatus - to save my neck from permanent damage thanks to a nasty habit of working while clutching a phone 'twixt shoulder and ear. So, I now need a posh, Bluetooth-friendly phone. The cheapest phone which will operate on my previously agreed network is priced at £149.99. At this point, we leave the granny-friendly-terrain-of-phones-for-a-tenner far behind.

"Look," says my assistant. "Just buy it with a Virgin connection. You'll save £20. The phone with the Virgin connection is £119.95, on top of which you have to have £10 airtime top-up." But surely the notion of "topping up" is as a generous dollop of extra? Not so. At good old CW, "top-up" loses all this voluntary connotation. It is, in fact, nothing more than an extra cost, as is explained in the small print beneath the Best Possible Price list. There are some other obligations. Some of the new phones can only be sold with £30 obligatory airtime, some with £40, and some with £50. Cash purchasers must, in some cases, pay more. Why? Who knows, but the labyrinthine manner in which Carphone Warehouse markets its price-points is worthy of a Master's degree.

And so, I walk out of CW with a lovely new phone costing £129.95, but also a new contract with Virgin, which I shall not use, because I am already signed up to another contract, and also some "top up" points which are, in effect, "topping up" nothing, and which I also will not use.

Carphone Warehouse has just been rapped over its corporate knuckles for being rather inventive with the vérité, as far as its TalkTalk broadband "free for life" offer goes. While nothing is as untoward with its mobile phone deals, I suggest that everyone a) reads the small print and b) treats the Hot Summer Sale with extreme caution. The job performed by Carphone Warehouse's flash advertising, in my view, performs only one thing, and that is to encourage you to go to its shops and stand in its very long queues.

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