Cell-Phone Accessories Market Booms as Devices Become Fashion Statements.
Byline: Clint Swett
They can be as prosaic as a
plastic faceplate, as gaudy as a flashing battery or as sophisticated as a
But there's no doubt that accessories for cellular phones are big business.
With an estimated 135 million cellular subscribers in the United States, the
market for dressing up wireless telephones is huge.
"It's such an untapped market," said Beth Johnson, senior director of product
marketing for Plantronics, a Santa Cruz-based company that makes wireless-phone
"People keep upgrading their cellular phones and buying new accessories."
The accessories market has two basic components. First are the more practical
add-ons like headsets for hands-free driving and in-car battery chargers.
More exotic but still useful are tiny digital cameras that can hook into phones
and e-mail photos to friends and family. AT&T Wireless now sells one for $130,
and other carriers are expected to follow suit.
The second and possibly faster-growing segment is the assortment of fashion
items that allow people to personalize their phones. That market is being driven
by younger users, who make up the fastest-growing segment of new wireless phone
According to the Yankee Group, 70 percent of teens will have their own wireless
phones by 2005, up from 35 percent in 2000.
Industry experts say customizing wireless phones is a way for people to
broadcast their identity to the world. Just as teens plaster their skateboards
or school books with logos and slogans, cell-phone users dress up their phones
with flashy faceplates and specialized ring tones.
"With the colors, symbols, patterns and brands people choose, they are
associating themselves with the meaning conveyed by them," Chris Conley, an
assistant professor of design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, said in
Sarah Schaale, a junior at Chico State, said the hot-pink faceplate on her phone
reflected a mood rather than a fashion statement. "It's really just a happy
color," she said. But using the phone while wearing a T-shirt decorated with a
pink flamingo got her a needling comment last week. "Someone said, 'Whoa, there,
Barbie,'" she said with a laugh.
At Cellular Warehouse on Arden Way faceplates to customize phones are a huge
seller, said store manager Pat Buchanan.
People buy them to match their outfits or their moods or to show what sports
teams they support.
"I've had customers who buy 30 or 40 at a time because they match their
outfits," Buchanan said. That's a significant outlay since the plates cost
between $10 and $20 each. Big sellers in the Sacramento area include faceplates
sporting the colors and logos of the Sacramento Kings, the San Francisco 49ers
and the Oakland Raiders.
Other attention-drawing accessories include $50 phone batteries packaged in
clear plastic that light up whenever the phone picks up a signal. "It's not very
useful but it says, 'Don't I look cool,' " said Buchanan.
Perhaps one of the fastest growing accessories are specialized ring tones, said
Donald Lognueuil,an analyst with In-Stat Group in Boston.
He said that people wanting their phone to ring the theme of "Mission:
Impossible" or the latest hit from Alicia Keys is just another manifestation of
the need to stand out. "Everyone has their own style," he said. "Cellular phones
are such a commodity item, so people want to differentiate."
Downloading ring tones has become a multimillion-dollar industry, with some
cell-phone insiders estimating that consumers download more than 1 million ring
tones a month, paying a $1 or more for each download.
Schaale, the Chico State student, said she has three ring tones, including a
song from the rapper Eminem and the theme from the cartoon show "Fraggle Rock."
"Before, my phone just sounded like everyone else's," she said.
A company that specializes in licensing ring tones and providing them to
wireless companies and other users is Moviso, a Los Angeles-based division of
Vivendi Universal Net USA. The company also sells tones from its own Web site,
"Customizing your phone is a sort of passive communication, like a kid wearing a
logo hat or Nikes," said Anthony Stonefield, Moviso's chief strategy officer.
Not every wireless phone in use can download ring tones, but Stonefield said
nearly every new phone on the market later this year will have that capability.
Many new phones also will have color screens, the better to display screen
savers such as portraits of James Dean or Marilyn Monroe, Stonefield said.
But as the wireless market grows, more mundane accessories are big sellers, too.
Headsets such as tiny earbuds are especially popular, due in part to the
influence of a New York law that requires drivers to use hands-free equipment
when operating a motor vehicle. California has no similar law.