iPhone 4 Scarcity – What AT&T Can Do To Help Make Customers Like Me Happy (Think Beyond the Tech)


It should be pretty obvious to those people who know me or read my social media updates that I really want an iPhone 4. I have had the original iPhone and the iPhone 3GS (I skipped the iPhone 3G), and now I’m ready for the “new hotness.” But I have an issue, actually a bunch of them and some of them aren’t related to the iPhone but that is another topic altogether. My current issue is that the iPhone 4 is not available. Well, iPhone4_idea that’s not completely true, you can pre-order it via AT&T, you can try your luck at an Apple Store or you can try Best Buy or Radio Shack to see if they have them in stock. And now, I’m a bit worried that Apple will be launching the iPhone overseas at the end of July 2010, which means, in my mind, even more scarcity.

So, why don’t I just take out my credit card and order from one of the sites I listed above? I have a pretty good reason, but it is somewhat unique (but others may fall into a similar scenario as I have found through some research). Here’s my problem, I have some AT&T Gift Cards. They were a prize that I received from winning the AT&T Lose the Laptop challenge in May. When I won, I was really excited because I figured that prize would fund my iPhone 4 acquisition. How wrong I was…

Cash or Gift Cards Not Accepted Here

The AT&T Gift Cards that I received are only good for in-store purchases. So, once I had them in my hot little hands, I marched on down to my local AT&T store in Walnut Creek, CA and asked if they had any iPhone 4s in stock (I had been calling various stores in the past and had been told they were not available but that I could “pre-order” them). I figured that I would just go into the store and do a pre-order with my AT&T Gift Cards. I was happy as a clam when I talked to the AT&T Rep, who seemed a bit battle worn from what I think was probably an onslaught of people pre-ordering the iPhone. Oh, and I was doing this pre-ordering well after the iPhone was out and people had them.

We started punching up my information to see if I was eligible for the upgrade pricing. I wasn’t but my daughter (who had just received a HTC Tilt 2 from me – another prize from the AT&T Lose the Laptop challenge) was eligible and I could use her upgrade to get the iPhone 4. So far, so good. The Rep started working through the various screens and while she was doing that, I asked her if she had heard about the Lose the Laptop thing because I was actually going to pay with the gift cards that I had won. She stopped typing – “sorry, you can only use a credit card to pre-order the iPhone 4” she said to me.

My heart dropped.

“What?” I exclaimed. Say it isn’t so, ran through my head. According to whatever policies that whomever in their wisdom had set up, the iPhone 4 could only be pre-ordered using a credit card. You couldn’t even use a debit card. I got a little hot around the collar. “So, you are saying that if I came in here with gift cards or even cash in my hand, I couldn’t pre-order the iPhone?” I asked, just to be sure.

“Yes, only a credit card.” So that was the policy and they were sticking to it. Isn’t that illegal? Is not the US Dollar, legal tender? Could the store not accept it as payment and then push a magic button to say that the phone was pre-ordered USING MONEY? And a gift card is essentially money, is it not?

To me, I felt this was a bit of discrimination. What about people who don’t have a credit card? Or those people who simply don’t want to or can’t use a credit card for one reason or another?

A few days later, I figured I would put my question out to AT&T’s Customer Care via Twitter. I was actually quite pleasantly surprised with how quick and helpful they were. Within minutes of tweeting my frustration, a rep was following me (I followed back) and then we had not only a Twitter to email exchange, but the rep actually called me up and talked to me about my scenario. To cap that off, she called a store in my area and spoke with a manager to find out what the exact store policy was regarding Gift Cards. She asked me if my gift card had a VISA logo on it (it doesn’t). It seems, I have the lowest of the low AT&T Gift Cards out there. Good for just in-store merchandise credits or for trying to pick a locked door I guess.

I then thought, perhaps I could pay my bill with the Gift Cards and then put the iPhone on a credit card (it would have more or less been a wash that way). But no, I couldn’t even pay my bill with the type of gift cards I had. The Rep then called the store again to see if there was anything “special” that could be done but supposedly, there wasn’t. Thanks @ATTCarolyn and @ATTCustomerCare for trying though, I really do appreciate it. Could it be some draconian Apple policy in play here or just AT&T being burned in the past for fraudulent orders? Whatever it is, I, the customer, am the one “suffering” here.

So I was resigned to the fact that I had to sit now and wait patiently for the iPhone to magically appear in one of my local stores. Every other day now, I’m calling the stores and asking “any iPhone 4s in stock?” and I get the standard reply “not for a month but you can pre-order one.” Yeah I know but actually I CAN’T PRE-ORDER IT the way I want to!!!

I did a quick search and found that there are other people in the same boat as I am – they have gift cards but there is no in-store inventory to use them.

My Old Fashioned Solutions

Today I tried to think of ways to make my life easier but to also potentially improve AT&T’s Customer Service. They did a great job responding to me via Social Media. But I think the whole thing is too wrapped up in the “tech” of things (e.g., have to pre-order, can’t use this type of payment, antennagate, data plan caps, social media responses, etc.). Let’s go back to good ol’ fashioned Customer Service. Here are a couple of ideas:

Local Store Waitlists or Notification Lists

A smart manager should implement a wait-list policy. Yes, it is a bit of work, but it will go a long way in terms of making customers happy. People can go into the store or call in to get placed on a master wait list. There would be one list per store. The list would have:

  • your name
  • phone number
  • type of iPhone 4 you want (16/32 or black/white)
  • whether you are a customer or not
  • if a customer, how long you have been one
  • and perhaps your email address (ha – can you say spam list for the future?)

Ideally, this would be sort of a database. The store could then get an idea of demand. If you connected all of these individual store lists, you could have a master inventory request database. It could be quite useful actually. When the phone that you wanted came in, the store could contact you about its availability and if you want to purchase it. Perhaps depending on if you are a customer or not or how long you have been a customer, the store could “hold” or “reserve” it for you for a longer period. Regardless, just having a notification or waitlist would go a really long way.

Someone on Twitter responded to my vent saying that Radio Shack actually does this. So why can’t AT&T?


If The Shack can do lists…I would think that AT&T could as well!

Store-to-Store Transfers

Not all AT&T stores are out of stock. Supply is being distributed around the nation but probably not to the areas of really high demand. Potentially, if you couple the waitlist/notification list with the idea of store-to-store transfers, you could move inventory faster, make customers happy and have more transactions instead of supply sitting on shelves where there isn’t demand. Many department stores will do free store-to-store transfers or, at a minimum, do inventory checks to see if a product is at a different nearby store.

The problem for me is, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, a place where no matter where you go, there is tremendous demand for anything tech-y. So the store-to-store transfers would have to occur from locations outside the tech bubble. Also, it might be faster to just order online (AT&T is saying 7-10 business days currently for pre-orders). But if a store can ship for next day or 2-day delivery from another store, that is well before the pre-order window. And if it is just going to the store, then someone WITH GIFTCARDS or CASH could walk in (after they are called of course) and pick up their iPhone.

This store-to-store procedure could be a limited time one, until the supply catches up with the demand. Heck, I would even pay $5-10 for the store-to-store shipment provided that I could be guaranteed to walk into the store and get it the next day.

So these were two old fashioned solutions, both that have been proven over and over again. They both show commitment to the customer or perspective customer. They demonstrate going above and beyond. And they would help AT&T not turn away customers in the process. There are so many good devices out there now that many users could easily now be jumping ship to the latest Android phone. They are really great phones and will be giving the iPhone a run for its money. Me? I’m sticking with the iPhone for now. I’m pretty much an Apple fanboy and it will be hard to convince me otherwise.

What do you think of my proposed solutions? Do you have any? If so, I would love to hear them. What about your experience getting the iPhone 4…was it a difficult one?

HTD says: I really hope that AT&T listens to what I have to say. I’m open to talk to anyone about this directly. Oh, and I still am waiting for my iPhone 4!

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Michael Sheehan (“HighTechDad”) is an avid technologist, writer, journalist, content marketer, blogger, tech influencer, social media pundit, loving husband and father of 3 beautiful girls living in the San Francisco Bay Area. This site covers technology, consumer electronics, Parent Tech, SmartHomes, cloud computing, gadgets, software, hardware, parenting “hacks,” and other tips & tricks.

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