7-Eleven enters the cellular fray

Convenience-store chain introduces branded phones, flat-rate service at local outlets

April 27, 2004|By Todd Beamon | Todd Beamon,Baltimoresun.com Staff

Now at your Baltimore-area 7-Eleven: cell phones.

The Dallas-based convenience-store chain today introduced a prepaid wireless telephone under its own brand name. Under the "Speak Out" program, customers can buy a Nokia phone for as little as $50 that operates on the Cingular Wireless network.

The telephones are preprogrammed and the batteries pre-charged. Airtime charges are 20 cents per minute for local or long-distance calling. The phones are being sold at 7-Eleven stores in 14 cities, including the 128 outlets in the Baltimore area. They're also being sold at 129 stores in the Washington region.

"Slurpees, burritos, big dogs, Big Gulps -- and now, Big Talk," said a chuckling Margaret Chabris, a 7-Eleven spokeswoman. "We wanted to develop a program that was very convenient for our customers.

"We wanted them to be able to use a telephone without the hassle of contracts or without having to think, 'Is this daytime, nighttime, weekend or what,' " Chabris said. "You take the phone out of the box, pop the battery in -- and you're good to go."

The retailer is partnering with ZtarMobile Inc., a Dallas-based cellular network servicer, in the program -- which seeks to capture part of a market estimated to grow to as much as $6.3 billion by 2006. The growth areas are teenagers, people with poor credit and customers who are seeking greater convenience, Chabris said.

"The major complaint we found in our research is customers do not like having to figure out how much time they're using with each call," she said. "Lots of people are on a budget, and many programs do not tell you how much time you have left."

The 7-Eleven service keeps customers abreast of how many minutes they have left in their accounts. Customers may buy refill cards to add minutes as they expire.

The program has two Nokia telephones, each coming with a $50 rebate, Chabris said. The Nokia black-and-white phone is $49.99 with the rebate, while the color model is priced at $89.99 with the rebate. The phones operate on the Cingular network, and customers will pay roaming charges if using the phone outside the network, she said.

The telephones also can be used for international calls, with flat rates to Canada and Mexico of 39 cents a minute.

Chabris said 7-Eleven's program also seeks to reach parents who'd like their children or elderly parents to have a telephone for emergencies, people lacking credit cards -- "or someone who just lost their phone and needs one right away."

Originally published April 27, 2004, 1:20 PM EDT

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