Low End Theory: Dollar Store Cellphones

Last Saturday, semi-buzzed on a few Red Stripes, I went for an afternoon stroll in my local park. There, per the usual, I was gently accosted by a guy slanging homebrew DVDs. I paid his sales pitch no mind until he offered up Carlito's Way: Rise to Power. The straight-to-DVD prequel is scheduled for a September 27th release, but somehow the shady guy in Mount Morris Park already had it. Yes, shocking, I know.

My point is, low-end sources usually stock inferior goods, but occasionally they'll get the scoop on something classy—or at least halfway desirable for more than just the price. And that brings me to this week's topic: the cellphones they sell at the dollar store, and the bargains to be found amidst the bottles of Ajax smuggled in from Ontario.

After the jump, Low End Theory goes Motorola shopping at the dollar store. PLUS: Readers chime in on $15 digital cameras, and what they're good for besides weighing down stacks of paper.

When the definitive history of the cellphoning of America is written someday, a huge chapter will be dedicated to the wireless industry's masterstroke: partnering up with independent retailers by offering contract bounties. If the Sprint PCSes and Verizons of the world had limited their sales to branded stores and the Web, there's no way cellphones would be as ubiquitous as they are today. Instead, they made the wise choice to allow freelance entrepreneurs to essentially work on commission, which is why every strip mall and downtown retail strip in America now has some variation of Cell Hut located a few doors down from Arby's.

Cellphone sales are so lucrative, apparently, that even dollar stores have gotten in on the act. My local value spot, the strangely titled Family Community 99 Cents and More, recently cleared out its back room and opened up a sideline called Wireless Inc. 1. They're hooked up with Nextel, which seems to have been the most aggressive targeter of customers who prefer prepaid minutes over contracts. (I can just imagine the actuarial work that went into determining that push-to-talk phones and cash-only clients were a match made in heaven.)

Yesterday afternoon, I ventured back to the cellphone counter and began inquiring about their hardware. A boy of about 12 was working the shop, but he was a total gearhead when it came to Nextel phones. He guided me through the three options, all of them Motorolas. Strangely, none of them were of the cheaper Boost variety, which is what Nextel usually pushes on its most budget-conscious customers.

The two most expensive phones under the glass, the i830 and i860, were definitely not what you would consider bargains. I was quoted a price of $249 for each model, which struck me as either a) ridiculous or b) a "special" price reserved for customers who don't speak Wolof. (Family Community 99 Cents and More is operated by Senegalese immigrants.) But the third phone was an eye-popping bargain: the new i850 camera phone for a mere $80, with no contract to sign. That's less than half of what Nextel charges through its web site.

Not only that, but I got the feeling from my discussions with the 12-year-old clerk that all prices were negotiable; it's not like the dollar store uses UPC codes, or does a weekly inventory. My gut tells me that, with a little haggling, I could have walked out of there with a $70 i850, with a free clip-on holder to boot.

There was a catch, though: they only had two i850s for sale. I couldn't find a tactful way to confirm this, but my hunch is that said i850s fell off a proverbial truck. C'mon, we all know the score—who among us hasn't unearthed an unusually fabulous deal, courtesy of the store owner's cousin's brother-in-law's neighbor, who happens to "know a guy" over at the factory.

I hope I'm not bucking for a lightning bolt—or a federal arrest warrant—when I say that such merchants are providing a valuable, if inadvertent, public service, putting top-shelf gadgets within reach for cash-only consumers. I'm not saying they're saints but, hey, there's no "I" in "grey-market economy."

Know of any dollar-store cellphone deals that top the $80 i850? Drop Low End Theory a line at brendan@gizmodo.com. Oh, and don't bother dropping by Family Community; I just checked, and they sold the last i850 this morning.

$15 DIGICAM IDEAS: I ended last week's column with an appeal for ideas as to how best to use the $15 3-in-1 Sakar digicam I spotted in CVS. Got some great responses from as far afield as Belgium, where a reader suggested turning the Sakar into a kite camera. I also enjoyed the suggestion that the Sakar could be (somewhat) easily converted into an infrared camera.

But for sheer entertainment value, the best response came from a rather security-minded Gizmodo fan. Full-text below; pay close attention to the kicker, which really caught my fancy:

Here's a thought: Many of us have extra low-end computers, or at least one in every bedroom. You could buy a couple, and using the "webcam" feature, set up a home surveillance/security system. If it weren't for the high price of USB cables (perhaps one should create his own?), you could wire your entire house. Add some reasonably priced motion-sensitive software, and *BAM* you have yourself a security system that emails your Treo with a picture.

This reminds me of my favorite William Burroughs quote (frequently misattributed to Woody Allen): "Paranoia is knowing all the facts."

Facts About Dollar Stores [via Marginal Revolution]