At this moment, I’m betting your cell phone is either in your hand, on the surface beside you, or in a pocket, steps away. As we all know, cell phone usage now permeates every aspect of daily life.
Just ask Sandra Birk*, who started selling mobile devices at the Cataraqui Centre in 2012.
“Back then, we still had to convince people that they needed a cell phone. We had to say ‘Look at all the cool stuff it can do; you’ll use it in the car!’” said Birk. “Now people know they need them. They’re just shopping for the best deal.”
With 11 stores or kiosks in the Cataraqui Centre alone that sell, upgrade or activate phones, it might seem Kingstonians have choices a-plenty.
I asked Birk, as well as several other mall vendors, what Kingstonians love, hate and want from their ever-present devices.
Kingstonians suffering ‘Worst plans in the world’
Birk and her colleague, Simon Nelson, agreed that plan pricing is the number one pain point for cell phone customers in Kingston.
“People do come shopping with unrealistic expectations on plans,” Birk said.
Nicholson notes that American ads for AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon, broadcast on the US networks in Canada, create confusion.
“[American provider] Verizon has three times the subscribers as Canada has for a population,” Nelson said. That volume allows the company to offer plans at rates that are inaccessible to Canadians.
The European market follows similar trends. In England, for example, subscribers can get upwards of 25 GB of mobile data and unlimited minutes for around $50 Canadian per month.
“England has twice the population of Canada, ” Nelson said.
That population density makes all the difference. “Canada has the most surface area with the least amount of people,” Birk explained, noting that companies have to pay to put up the cell phone towers their networks run on. When you consider the number of cell phone plans you need to pay for one tower, Canada’s high rates begin to make sense.
“[Some service providers] are putting towers in remote locations to expand the network now, but there are fewer people in those areas to pay for service and cover the cost,” she said.
As such, subscribers in denser parts of the country pay more to subsidize the infrastructure.
Payne Dunn, who works at a cell phone** shop down the mall, offers a more blunt assessment.
“Canada has the worst cell phone infrastructure in the world,” he said, noting he is referring to developed countries with an established mobile infrastructure. “Ontario in particular. We are the worst.”
Kingston kids and phone usage
Dunn, Nelson and Birk agreed that kids receiving their first cell phone average around 13 or 14 years of age.
“I have sold a phone for a kid as young as nine,” Birk said, noting that was an exception.
“It’s more for the parents than the kids at that point,” added Nelson. “The kid might start walking themselves home from school [for instance], and the parents want to be in touch.”
Dunn noted that early teens are “surprisingly unpicky” about the phone they end up with. “They’ll take whatever they can get. Their parents might even put a plan on an old phone for them and they’ll be happy,” he said.
“Once they get up to 18, 19 years old, that’s when they are very picky. They want the iPhone, and they want the newest one.”
Kids are also a main cause of cell phone damage, Dunn said.
“At the store level, a lot of the damage we see is from little ones picking up Mom’s phone and throwing it across the room.”
Smartphone sales reportedly began slowing worldwide for the first time in 2016, while a return to basic phones is also trending thanks to celebrities like Rihanna, Scarlett Johansson and Kate Beckinsale flashing their flip phones for the cameras.
The only real signs of smartphone fatigue in Kingston come from senior customers, who have been pressured into buying a smartphone by a child or grandchild, Birk noted.
“You would be shocked how many kids convince their parents to get iPhones and high-end devices, when they make calls twice a year,” she said.
When left to pick the devices on their own, Dunn said most elder consumers want the basics: “Big buttons, big screen, loud, easy to use.”
Meanwhile, post-secondary school students keep all the vendors busy, and bring in good business.
“They want high-end devices, they’re willing to pay for them,” said Nelson.
The iPhone and the Huawei smartphone are reportedly Kingston’s best-sellers.
*Names have been changed to protect the sources’ identities.
**Store name withheld to protect employee’s interests.
Samantha Butler is a life-long Kingston resident and writer. She is a news junkie and mom who loves reading, chasing her toddlers and working out.