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Cell phones
Teenagers are badly informed
Montreal, 15 novembre 2007 –
What actually goes on in a store when teenagers go out to get a cell phone? Do vendors have a particular technique to get them to buy? Do they give them all the information they need? This is what we wanted to find out when we conducted our investigation.


Our investigation was carried out from October to December 2006.

We asked six teenagers, aged 12 to 17, to visit an outlet of each of Quebec’s five most successful and respected cell phone companies: Bell, Fido, Rogers, Telus and Virgin, and also to the Cabine téléphone. Consequently, each teenager made 6 visits, for a total of 36 visits.

During each visit, there were two adult investigators positioned close to the teenager. This enabled them to witness what occurred and also to collect information.

Once there, each teenager asked for a cell phone, then waited for the vendor’s reaction. If they were asked if they knew what they wanted, they said they didn’t. They wanted to get their first cell phone and didn’t know much about how it all worked.

The adult investigators noted what was said and what went on during the meeting.

We make a point of mentioning that, because our sample is relatively small, we cannot claim to be giving a fair portrait of the whole industry. If we had gone to the same places on another day or if we had visited other branches, our results would have probably been different.

We nevertheless believe that the poor performance of most of the vendors we met is reason enough for drawing the attention of consumers to our investigation so that they will exercise caution and insist on obtaining information when they get a cell phone.


In order to advise customers adequately, vendors must know their needs. And to discover these, they need to ask questions.

In the case of the sale of cell phone services, certain questions are particularly important. These are:

1. Where will you use your cell phone? (to determine the territory where the phone will be used)
2. Do you think you will use it much? (to direct customers towards a package price or prepaid service)
3. When will you use it? (to suggest an appropriate package)
4. Which options would you like (voice mail, display, etc.)? (to offer a package with the desired options)
5. Do you want a phone with certain features (camera, MP3, etc.)? (to offer the right phone)

When the questions were formulated differently – for example “How many minutes do you want?” rather than “Do you think you’ll be using it a lot?" or “Do you want you to listen to music?” rather than "Are you looking for a phone with certain features?” we considered that the necessary question had been asked.

For each question, we planned the answers that the investigator would give.

To the question: Our investigator answered:

"Where you will use your cell phone?” In the Montreal area
"Do you think you’ll be using it much?” I don’t know
"When will you use it?” During the day, but also in the evenings and on weekends
"What options would you like?” Voice mail
“Do you want a phone with special features?” No (12 years) Text messaging (14-15 years) Music (17 years)


We believe that when vendors are faced with teenagers who have never had a cell phone, they should also give them some basic information. This includes:

- the possibility of choosing a package or prepaid service and the difference between the two
- a description of the options and what they will cost
- if necessary, producing a contract, with an undertaking for a given period
- the cost of terminating the contract
- the time when “day minutes” end and “evening minutes” start
- the cost of activation, network access and 911
- additional expenses for long-distance calls and roaming
- total cost to pay each month (in the case of a package)

After asking questions and giving information, vendors generally direct their customers towards the product that is most appropriate for them. We therefore noted whether the vendors made any suggestions to our investigators and if they told them the characteristics of the suggested product.


N.B. Each of the tables must be read separately, since one vendor may have given information on the packages and suggested a prepaid service. Or he may have given information on both the prepaid cards and the packages without making a suggestion. Finally, it is also possible that a vendor mentioned the monthly cost of a package without suggesting it or that he suggested one without mentioning the cost.


What surprised us, initially, was the attitude of the vendors toward our young investigators. Very few informed them well. The majority of vendors were miserly with information. Several seemed not to be interested in serving our young investigators. Some were completely unaware they were there!


The vendors who agreed to serve our young investigators did not ask them many questions.

Questions asked by vendors The number of visits (out of 36) during which the vendors asked these questions
# 1 Where will you use your phone? 3
# 2 Will you use it much? How many minutes do you need? 7
# 3 When will you use it? During the day? The evening? 13
# 4 What options do you want? (voice mail, display, etc.) 5
# 5 Do you want a phone with certain features? Do you want to receive text messages, listen to music? 6

Only 3 vendors asked our investigators where they would use their cell phones and only 7 vendors asked them if they would use them much or how many minutes they needed.

Slightly more vendors asked our investigators when they would use their cell phones; 13. This is not very many, given the importance of this information in choosing the appropriate package.

Vendors were scarcely more curious about the options and features they wanted on the phones. Only 5 vendors asked the first question and only 6 asked the second.


The vendors did not give our young investigators much information, either.

Information given by vendors Number of young people (out of 36) to whom the vendors gave this information
# 1 Difference between prepaid cards and packages 6
# 2 General features (prepaid cards) 7
# 3 General features (packages) 7
# 4 Signing a contract, means making an engagement 2
# 5 There is a cost for terminating the contract 0
# 6 Cost of options 7
# 7 Misc. (activation, access to network, 911, etc.) 11
# 8 The evening starts at… 2
# 9 Guarantee on the phone 1
# 10 Long-distance charges 0
#11 Roaming charges 0
# 12 Total cost 6

Only 6 vendors explained to our young investigators the difference between the prepaid service and a package. And 14 vendors described the characteristics of one or other of two formulas.

Only 2 vendors mentioned to our young investigators that a contract was a long-term engagement. And no one told them that if they wished to terminate their contract before it expired, it would cost them money.

Finally, only 6 vendors told our young investigators how much their cell phone would cost them each month.

In addition, 7 vendors made some mention of the cost of the options (either by listing those that were included, or by mentioning the cost of those that were not). 11 vendors mentioned the various charges to be paid (activation, network access, 911, etc).

Among the "forgotten" information, we should mention the time when “day minutes” finish and “evening minutes” begin – Only 2 vendors mentioned this (this information is, however, important for young people, who often uses their phones in the evening). Also “forgotten” was information about the length of the warranty on the phone – only 1 vendor mentioned this.

Finally, only 3 vendors announced to our investigators the presence of additional expenses for long-distance calls and roaming. Only 6 vendors told our investigators how much their cell phone would cost them (with all added costs), which is very worrying.


A greater number of vendors made suggestions.

Suggestions made by the vendors Number of investigators (out of 36) to whom vendors made suggestions
# 1 Prepaid service 9
# 2 Package 17
# 3 Phone 18

With regard to prepaid service or packages, 26 made suggestions. Nine vendors directed our investigators towards prepaid service and 17 vendors suggested a package.

In addition, 18 vendors proposed a specific phone.

Suggestions "explained" Number of investigators to whom the suggestions were explained
Features of the suggested package 10
Features of the phone 13

Making suggestions is fine. Justifying your choice is even better. Only 10 of the 17 vendors who suggested a package explained to our investigator what this consisted of. 13 of the 18 vendors who proposed a certain cell phone justified their choice.


Vendors possess very little information that would help young consumers who want to get a cell phone to make a good choice, nor do they offer them much information.

The following two questions seemed particularly significant to us:

- “How much will you use it? How many minutes do you need?”
- “When will you use it? Will you use it in the day? The evening?”

However, no more than 7 vendors asked these two questions.
In such a context, one may wonder how it could happen that 26 vendors felt sufficiently at ease to make a suggestion to our young investigators. If these suggestions were appropriate – which we doubt – it could only have been by accident.

Similarly, we noted that very few vendors provided our young investigators with adequate information. Only 6 of them tried hard to explain the two formulas available on the market. And only 6 told them how much they would have to pay.

All this leads us to conclude that young people who shop for a cell phone have very little assistance from vendors. And unless they very carefully read the booklets and folders provided by all the cell phone companies and do in-depth research on these same companies’ web sites, which is extremely complicated, they do not have the means of making an enlightened choice. Which is particularly worrying with the Holidays approaching… 


Option consommateurs recommends that teenagers who want to get a cell phone should be extremely vigilant. Before going into the store, they should take the time to compare what the various companies have to offer. Once inside, they should ask questions, particularly about the package or phone offered to them, about the price they will have to pay and the obligations they have to fulfill. This is the only way to ensure they are well-informed.

Option consommateurs recommends that parents take part in their teenagers’ research and accompany them to the store; they should not hesitate to raise questions, either.

Option consommateurs recommends that companies help teenagers make the choice that corresponds to their requirements by asking basic questions and by giving them all the information they need.

Option consommateurs recommends that consumers who feel wronged because they were badly informed by a salesman should lodge a complaint with the Competition Bureau.

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