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The Superphone Era Demands an Improved Retail Experience

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iStock_000001589232SmallThe mobile phone shopping experience is plagued with uninformed retail staffers and intolerably long wait times at the sales counter, according to new figures from Amdocs (s dox). The St. Louis-based provider of software and services to the communications industry found that while 60 percent of respondents visited a retail outlet in the U.S., UK and Canada in the last six months with the intention of buying something, 25 percent of those left the store empty-handed. Fewer than two-thirds of those surveyed said that the in-store experience had met their expectations and less than 20 percent said the trip improved their perception of their service provider.

While Amdocs has a dog in this fight — the company launched a retail solution for service providers today — the survey sheds some much-needed light on the mobile retail space, which for years has disappointed consumers. Carrier-branded stores are limiting and have failed to meet consumers’ needs, as a 2005 study from The NPD Group notes, and big-box retailers haven’t done much better. Meanwhile, the handful of efforts to provide a dedicated, educational shopping experience floundered in the last few years as cost-conscious consumers sought no-frills handsets for voice and text use only.

But customers’ needs are ramping up as more sophisticated handsets move into the mainstream. A survey earlier this year from Best Buy (s bby) — which is entering the market with both standalone and in-store efforts — indicated 47 percent of non-smartphone owners are too confused by the number of models and features available, and 39 percent don’t own a smartphone because they hate shopping for electronics products. Those concerns seem particularly valid as consumers who traditionally use feature phones move into high-end handsets that sport a host of advanced mobile applications.

Apple has done a fantastic job of demonstrating how knowledgeable, informative employees and a hands-on retail environment can help educate mobile consumers as they push product out the door. As smartphone platforms such as Android (s goog), BlackBerry (s rimm) and Palm’s (s palm) webOS continue to find an audience among mainstream consumers, there will be an increasing need for retailers with staffers who can informatively offer handsets and services from a variety of carriers. Which is why I expect to see Best Buy — and, perhaps, some competitors — gain serious momentum in mobile over the next year.

9 Responses to “The Superphone Era Demands an Improved Retail Experience”

  1. I’d a surprisingly good retail experience at… WalWart!

    Employee really knew her phones, did not push me to iPhone or G1 until we talked for a bit and she realized what a geek I am. She even shared tips for getting on cheaper plans vs. phone features.

    I wonder if the mobile “retail experience” really boils down to commissions. I assume Walmart employees get zero commissions, carrier retails store employees live and die by them.

    Don’t know about Apple store employees’ cut on iPhones – they get whuffie instead of dollars?

    • Colin Gibbs

      I can’t imagine spending a couple hundred bucks on a handset without playing with it first, but that’s one of the problems with brick-and-mortar outlets: the devices are often tethered, limiting their use at the retail counter.

      Interestingly, Wal-Mart fared very well in the NPD study I cited above, largely because their commission system didn’t encourage the staff to push data services — which, of course, is a double-edged sword.

      I think Mike is right that Apple has paved the way, but I think there’s a ton of opportunity for retailers willing to pay good money to employees who really know phones and services from several services. Nothing against Wal-Mart, but if that’s where the bar is being set for mobile retail there’s huge room for improvement.

    • I would expect Walmart will do well in electronics. I would guess the average Gigaom reader knows more about their potential device than any salesfolk at a phone retailer, Best Buy, etc. If you know what you want, just need a visual confirmation, and don’t want to deal with commission -based sales (“do you want the extended warranty?”). Why wouldn’t you buy there?

  2. It’s nice to handle/test a potential phone – but the carriers are their own worst enemy with their branded retail stores. The only times I’ve ever had customer service issues was over upgrades/fees when the carrier and store gave me conflicting information which escalated into “I don’t care what said….we can’t……..”

  3. Wouldn’t the most obvious solution here be an App on the phones that could lead a prospective consumer through the value and benefits of that phone?

    Something intuitive and conversational, not menu driven?

    Let’s face it, store employees will NEVER know the difference between various and competitive smart phones at a level required to properly educate a consumer.

    The phones themselves should DO THE TALKING.

  4. I am totally baffled why on earth anyone would want to visit a store to buy a phone or other electronics product (apart from hifi). Neither I nor anyone I know is looking for a retail ‘experience’, rather they avoid it like the plague. The only thing I can think of is the instant gratification factor but even my kids don’t want that and the older they get the less they care. Just have a great web site, an acceptable return policy, take my $$, send me the product and leave me the heck alone with it to play.