High bandwidth retailing

As mobile phone brands prepare to fight it out on the high street, Mike Exon looks at how they are maximising the retail branding experience

Just when you thought mobile phone branding couldn’t get any more competitive, along comes a clutch of telecommunications retail design projects, all within a few days of each other. Not only is O2 now set to pick up the lion’s share of The Link’s 300-strong chain of UK stores, but Vodafone and Virgin Mobile are both unveiling plans for a hard-hitting assault on the high street. Keep your eyes peeled – mobile stores could prove to be one of the biggest design stories of the year.

The world of mobile retailing has begun to change rapidly. Rewind a few years to when the service providers sold their wares out of pile-them-high chains, such as Phones 4U and Carphone Warehouse, and brands like Orange didn’t exist on shop facia. Nowadays, it’s changed completely. The arrival on the high street of the principal networks – Orange, Vodafone, O2, T-Mobile and Virgin Mobile – has created a second playing field for mobile wares that competes on customer service and brand experience, rather than price.

The reasons are complex. As networks have evolved the products and services that they sell, it is all the more important to have long-lasting and stable brands for customers to buy into. Sales are increasingly going to be driven by bundled packages of services, rather than just telephone contracts. What’s fuelling the current boom of design activity from these brands is the broadband package – mobile, landline, TV and Internet connection for a fixed monthly outlay. If you thought buying a telephone package was complicated, try buying one of these.

‘Using the retail environment is a sensible way of demystifying some of these complexities, particularly for customers who aren’t surfing the Web for all the latest information,’ says 20/20 managing director Jim Thompson. The consultancy designed the blueprint for the Orange chain in 2003, which is now being rolled out in-house by Orange’s head of marketing services Matt Gayleard.

20/20 also worked with BT on its (now defunct) retail chain and has also been working at the retail level with the Dutch telecommunications group KPN, designing a store for the 18- to 24-year-old market called 576. The brand name, created by 20/20, stems from the keypad numbers representing the letters KPN, using predictive text messaging. KPN has also launched KPN Klick, which is a photograph and imaging based retailer – a bit like a Snappy Snaps for the digital age. Thompson and the 20/20 team are also advising on the future of KPN’s Primafoon brand at the retail level.

Vodafone’s new store concept, designed by Fitch, not only features Vodafone’s reworked branding by Enterprise IG, but consciously mixes in a dash of local flavour to each store. The first store to open, in Cheltenham, boasts the facia ‘Vodafone Cheltenham’, for example, and, when the store is closed, passers-by are greeted with the message ‘Goodnight Cheltenham’ emblazoned across its shutters.

‘Customers no longer want to look at dummy telephones on a wire,’ says Vodafone head of retail development Jonathan Dryland. ‘What we’ve done is create a live, interactive space in the heart of the new stores to help you see just how our products and services work. We’ve introduced an express area at the front of the store and a dedicated space for help and advice, which is likely to be a longer stay. Another part of the store is centred around our business customers, whose needs are different again, so we’ve designed a dedicated area for them too.’

Fitch has been working with Vodafone for about two years, but began this specific project around six months ago, says design director Alasdair Lennox.

‘We’ve gone out of our way to achieve a store design that is futureproof. Part of our brief was to design a store that is flexible, modular and non-permanent. It’s a kit of parts which can be adapted to reflect just about any product, service or bit of content that is likely to come along in the future.

Network provider stores, in general, have not been cutting edge. I think they almost see themselves as accidental retailers in a way – but that’s all changing,’ says Lennox. ‘In the past, a lot of money was spent on above-the-line, but the networks are now realising that the retail environment is absolutely vital to building the brand.’

O2 creative director Gary Holt is advising O2 on its retail branding, working through his new design group Holt Branding. The former Lambie-Nairn creative director was one of the chief architects of the O2 brand, following the BT Cellnet demerger.

‘We still live in a world which is handset-centric. People don’t really engage all that often with their service providers, so the retail environment becomes one of the most physical manifestations of the brand. What service providers are looking for is to provide relevance,’ says Holt.

MOBILE OPERATORS:

O2

• Stores: Set to clinch over 200 stores from The Link

• Design: Holt Branding with Lambie-Nairn?

• Retail strategy: rebranding of The Link stores as O2

• Latest innovation: acquired the broadband service provider Be

Orange

• Stores: 300

• Design: In-house implementation based on a 20/20 blueprint

• Retail strategy: moving into broadband market after rebranding Wanadoo

• Latest innovation: quadruple-play packages offering mobile calls, landline calls, broadband and TV

Vodafone

• Stores: 100

• Design: Fitch

• Retail strategy: localisation and personalisation – Vodafone Cheltenham

• Latest innovation: redesign of stores to be rolled out by April 2007

Virgin Mobile

• Stores: currently all concessions, but 50 stand-alone stores to be rolled out this year

• Design: Start Creative (branding), Judge Gill (interiors)

• Retail strategy: could clinch about 100 further stores from The Link

• Latest innovation: NTL to rebrand as Virgin Mobile having acquired the operator for £962m

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