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Why Wal-Mart Will Refuse to Sell You Prepaid Cell Phones

A few weeks ago we came up with the idea of doing some activation guides for the site. My boss asked me to run up to Wal-Mart and grab every prepaid phone they sold. Now, I’m not a big Wal-Mart fan (reading The Wal-Mart Effect definitely had an impact on me) but they had the largest selection, so off I went. What should have been a 30 minute trip (like over 50% of Americans, I live within five miles of a Wal-Mart) turned into a four hour ordeal. I’m still in awe of the entire fiasco. Note: associates names have been changed for privacy issues.

Wal-Mart Store

I head to the electronics department, find the nearest salesperson and tell him I’d like to buy some prepaid phones. The prepaid phones are locked into the racks and require a sales associate to unlock them (it’s at times like these I’m in love with the online shopping revolution). A very nice associate named Tom tells me “no problem” and locates a set of keys to open the racks. He asks me which phone I want and I say, “I’d like to buy one of each brand.”Tom gives me a puzzled look, and I quickly explain that I work for a website that reviews the phone providers and we were working on a project and needed one from each carrier. Tom smiles and makes small talk about how he goes online sometimes to find car parts (at this exact moment, I realize that not everyone spends 12 hours a day online). He collects my phones (seven in total) and walks me over to the register.Then another sales associate named Tara looks at me, then at Tom and finally at the phones and says to Tom, “you know he can’t buy all those phones”. Tom looks puzzled for a second and then his eyes light up with recognition. He turns to me and says, “I’m sorry sir, she’s right. We can’t sell you more than two phones”.

Wal-Mart EmployeeMe: “What do you mean you can’t sell me more than two phones?”

Tom looks at Tara, who looks and me and says, “It’s the law sir. We can’t sell any individual person more than two phones”.

Me: “At one time?”

Tara: “No, total.”

Me: “You mean I can’t come back tomorrow and buy two more phones if I purchase two today?”

Tara: “Not if one of us is on shift. Now that we’ve seen you, we can’t sell you more than two phones.”

Me: “Are you serious?”

Tara: “Yes, sir.”

Me: “Why can’t I buy more than two phones?”

Tara: “We can’t sell them to you by law.”

Me: “What law? Why would it be against the law for me to buy more than two prepaid phones?”

Tara: “Because they’ve been commonly used in drug deals.”

Another female sales associate who had by this time to come over to hear the commotion – I didn’t catch – nods in agreement.

Me: “So you’re telling me you can’t sell me more than two phones, because I might be a drug dealer?”

Tom: “It’s not that we think YOU are a drug dealer sir. That’s just the law.”

Out of Luck Grandmother

Me: “So what if I was a grandmother, with more than two grandchildren, and wanted to buy each one a phone for Christmas?” Tom: “We could only sell you two.” Me: “So, I’d have to bring a second person with me, pretend they’re not with me, and purchase two phones and have them purchase the third?”

Tara: “If we realized that was what you were doing, we couldn’t sell you the phones.”

Me: “This is insane. Can I speak with a manager?”

Tara: “He’s not here at the moment, but I’m next in charge.”

Me: “Fine, please ring me up for the T-Mobile and the Virgin Mobile phones then please.”

This was crazy. There was actually a law that prevented me from purchasing more than two prepaid cell phones? Yes, because, if I make my living dealing drugs, I’d respect that law and not go to 14 different stores purchasing phones instead. I was completely livid with whoever made this “law” and I now was short several of the prepaid phones I had been sent to buy. I hopped in my car and headed across the street to Circuit City.

Circuit City with Verizon BoothI quickly saw the Verizon booth and walked over to buy a phone. I informed the sales associate that I wanted to buy a prepaid phone. She asked me which one. I said it didn’t really matter. She told me to come pick a phone and she’d activate it for me. I explained to her that I needed it un-activated and after getting a puzzled look, why I needed it that way.

Verizon Associate: “I’m sorry Sir. I cannot sell you an un-activated phone.”

Me: “Why not?”

Verizon Associate: “I’m not really sure. But that’s our policy.”

Me: “So, I can buy an un-activated Verizon prepaid phone in Wal-Mart, but I can’t buy one un-activated from Verizon?”

Verizon Associate: “That’s correct.”

By this point, I’m looking around for a Candid Camera like gag show (I’d say Punk’d, but I’m not a celebrity no matter what my mom thinks seeing my bylines online might mean). Disappointed, I walk over and find a phone from Amp’d Mobile (my Circuit City only carries Amp’d and Verizon prepaid phones).

I take my un-activated Amp’d Mobile phone up to the register. As the cashier is ringing it up I ask her, “Just out of curiosity, if I wanted to purchase ten of these phones right now, could I?” and watch her look at me like I’m some kind of freak in response. “You can buy as many as you want,” she replies. I feel compelled at this point to prove that I’m not a freak, and tell her what Wal-Mart told me, “I only ask because Wal-Mart just told me there was a law that they couldn’t sell me more than two phones.” For some reason, I immediately feel fear. What if she rips the phone out of my hand realizing I’ve already bought my mandated by law limit of two prepaid phones? I try not to look nervous and await her answer. She mumbles, “Well, if there is a law, no one told me” and hands me my bag and receipt.

I head out the front door of Circuit City, tuck the bag under my arm (after checking to make sure you couldn’t see through it to realize what was inside) and head into Office Depot next door.

Office DepotI locate the prepaid phones and see that they have TracFone, Net10 and T-Mobile available. I pick up one of the TracFone models (the C139) and one of the Net10 models (also a C139) and stand there staring at the twenty dollar price difference between the two identical phones (Net10 is really TracFone, so the “double the price” difference made me chuckle).

I shake my head and take my two new “illegal purchases” to the register, leaving the T-Mobile I had already purchased at Wal-Mart behind. I wait in line and eventually hand the phones to the cashier to ring up.

Repeating the process, but choosing my words more wisely this time I ask, “If I wanted to buy ten of these right now, could I?” The cashier looked at me and said, “I think we only have eight in stock.” I smiled and said, “but if I wanted to buy them all, I could?” trying not to look guilty as hell. She looked confused. I said someone told me there might be some law against buying a large amount of prepaid phones. She responded with, “well, maybe because we have such a small selection, we weren’t told about this law.” At this point, I was the one looking confused. I was too tired to point out the flaws in that statement.

I took my phones and headed back to the car. I had five phones in all. I felt a somewhat perverse sense of joy at knowing in spite of “the law” I was racking up prepaid phones. Not because I wanted to break the law. But because from the moment I was told about it, it was the stupidest thing I had ever heard and here I was proving it. But, at the same time, I’m starting to wonder why two stores hadn’t heard of this supposed law. I still needed more phones.

On my way to the next store, Target, I called the office and explained that I had “run into a problem” and that I’d explain when I got back. I then called a friend and asked him to see if he could do an online search on this supposed law and see if it brought anything up. While I drove the ten minute drive to Target, I started to wonder. Since Wal-Mart was the only store citing this law of the three I had visited, maybe this was a Wal-Mart thing and not a legal issue. I pulled into the Target parking lot, parked and headed inside.

Target StoreI found the prepaid phones, but like Wal-Mart, they were locked into the rack. I hit the button to call over a sales associate and waited. A woman who looked annoyed that I was interrupting her came over and asked what I needed. I had already perused the phone selection while waiting and saw they only had one that I didn’t already have in my possession – Boost Mobile. After she unlocked my selection, I asked “If I wanted to buy ten phones right now, could I?” She had already gone behind the register and gave me an even more annoyed look and replied, “So now you want ten?” I told her, “No, I just want to know if I could buy ten” to which she responded, “If you can afford it.” Wow, I guess she really paid attention to the “we care about customer service” video she watched during her training.

Purchase in hand, I headed back out to the car. I now had six phones. I was completely convinced this was a Wal-Mart issue at this point and Wal-Mart number 2 (as I said, there are three in our county) was my next stop.

I located the electronics section after a minute or two (this Wal-Mart is much newer and set up differently than the first one I visited) and found they had two phones I didn’t have. I walked up to the register to have the sales associate (who I later found out was Ann) unlock them for me. She was having a conversation with a man she had already finished ringing up. Ann finally finishes her chat and asks me if she can help me. I show her the two phones I’d like – a Cingular Go Phone and a Verizon Wireless prepaid phone (in all of its un-activated glory) and while she is unlocking them, I ask the same tired question, “If I wanted to buy ten of these right now, could I?” and Ann looks at me and says flatly, “No.”

AH-HA, this wasn’t a law at all but a Wal-Mart thing! I ask Ann why I can’t purchase more than two cell phones. She replies, “Well, there is a certain type of business that is interested in these phones, so we cannot sell more than two to any one person in any one day.” I ask, “So I can’t buy the phone because I might be a drug dealer?” thinking back to what Tara at Wal-Mart number 1 had said and she responds, “Well, yeah, that is one type of business who likes these phones. But, what I was referring to were cell phone dealers.”

I’m more than a little confused, and Ann can see this, so she continues on to explain to me that they’ve had a problem with cell phone dealers coming in and buying up the prepaid phones and selling them as contract phones after replacing the SIM cards. I ask Ann, “So, this is a Wal-Mart policy then, and not a law?” and she confirms that to be the case. I ask her for the number to call Wal-Mart corporate and she walks away to locate it. After a few minutes, she comes back, “1-800-WAL-MART”. I buy my phones and head out to my car, dialing 1-800-WAL-MART as I go.

Wal-Mart Corporate

I bounce through some voice activated menus and finally get a human on the phone. I explain that my local Wal-Mart stores have informed me that I can’t buy more than two prepaid phones and that it was a Wal-Mart corporate policy. I explained to the person on the other end of the phone that I’d like to know WHY it was a Wal-Mart policy (never revealing the stories Tara and Ann gave me). She explained that only district managers could quote store policy to me, and that if I’d give her my zip code, she’d give me the number for my local district manager. We exchanged information and I hung up. Next, I dial the number for the district manager. A woman answers the phone and explains that the district manager is busy and that maybe she can help me. I explain that the main Wal-Mart number told me only a district manager could quote me policy, so I’d just leave a message for him. She responded that my information “wasn’t correct” and that she could quote me store policy if I’d simply explain to her what I needed clarification on. By this point, I’m back at the office. I walk in with five bags containing eight phones, four hours after I’d left with my phone glued to my ear. I wave away the stares silently going “where the heck have you been and why do you have bags from every electronics store in the county?” and walk over to my desk.

I explain to the woman on the phone that I was told I couldn’t buy more than two prepaid phones due to a Wal-Mart policy and that I wanted to know if that was true and if it was, why. She told me she’d check and give me a call back. A few minutes later, she calls me back and says that yes, it is indeed a Wal-Mart policy not to sell a person more than two prepaid phones. However, she said that the official policy was that they “could not sell more than two phones per person, not per household, per day”. So, Tara was clearly not listening on Wal-Mart policy day. I asked why this was an official policy (again, I stayed mum about what Tara and Ann had told me) and she said she wasn’t really sure, but that she could find out and give me a call back.

Feeling a sudden pang of full disclosure, I told the woman, “In the interest of full disclosure, I am going to tell you that I’m a writer for a prepaid cell phone site and I’d suggest having the manager call me back with the reason behind the policy, as it will be quoted in an article I plan to write on my experience today.” She said, “You’re a reporter?” and I said, “Somewhat” and she stammered, “I’ll have someone call you back.” And that was the last I ever heard from Wal-Mart on the topic as my subsequent calls were never returned.

I sat back in my desk and it was then that I felt the eyes piercing the back of my skull. “What was that all about?” one of my co-workers asked motioning to my phone and then looking at my pile of bags on the floor and the pile of receipts I had taken out of them while on the phone and placed on my desk.

“Well,” I said, “Wal-Mart has a corporate policy on not allowing any one person to purchase more than two prepaid phones in one day.” My co-worker responded, “Why on earth would they make a rule like that?” I answered, “Well, I’m not really sure. From what I can piece together from the reasons I was given by store employees, they think I’m a drug dealer, or a cell phone dealer, but either way, it would seem that Wal-Mart has decided that buying more than two phones likely makes me a dealer of some kind and has a blanket policy refusing to sell more than two to me in one day.”*

My Prepaid Phone Loot
The fruits of that day’s labor – eight phones in all

*Please note: As mentioned above, we were never able to get an official comment from Wal-Mart on why they have this policy about prepaid phones. I’m only recounting my experience and interpretation of the day’s events. Phone calls requesting clarification for the reason behind this policy were not returned.