Enhanced buyer experience

Staff Writer
19 Sep 2006

The move into retail by the world's biggest and most influential handset maker has generated surprisingly little reaction. Nokia's plan to set up a chain of flagship stores worldwide tells us a couple of things about the mobile market.

It says a few things about Nokia, too, not least the fact that it thinks it worth risking the ire of operators by going head to head with them.

In the bland vocabulary of modern business, operators and handset-makers are 'partners'. But there's always been a tension between the two.

Before the tech bust, operators pretty much had to accept the form factor, specs and release date set by the manufacturers.

Today some operators are big enough to dictate to the operators. They certainly have a deeper, continuing relationship with consumers, while vendors are in a constant technology arms race.

In some markets, like the US, operators rule the roost. In others, like China, the handset players and retailers dominate the consumer relationship and the sales process. The whole handset acquisition cycle is a classic problem-opportunity scenario for device makers.

The obvious problem is the phone selection experience is a limited one. Consumers get little opportunity to test-drive a phone before buying. For a product that's so deeply personal and is for most a major expenditure, that doesn't make sense.

High-end locations

Nokia's strategy is to open flagship stores in high-end retail locations, starting with Pushkin Square in Moscow last November.

Unwired dropped in one afternoon on the latest outlet, and the first in Asia, in Hong Kong's pricey Causeway Bay. Downstairs, the latest N-series and 6000 series mobile phones were on display, powered-up and ready to be tested. Upstairs, next to a bank of music phones and idle Internet terminals, a Nokia staffer was addressing a mainland delegation.

Management thankfully resisted the temptation to blast visitors with the latest TV commercial. That's not merely Unwired showing his age (outside the mainland group, I was the oldest person in the store by a decade or two) but defeats the purpose. It's not a place for imprinting brand dominance, but for helping customers learn about the devices.

To that end it seems to work. If anything, it should be even more relaxed and informal - perhaps with a caf‾

But the other purpose of the store is educating customers about today's high-functionality devices. With each new feature, the complexity count also rises.

Nokia might account for more than a third of all phones shipped, but it's only reluctantly in the voice handset game these days. Staff are famously banned from calling the N-series smartphone a 'phone'.

It's understandable that the firm behind some of the world's cleverest devices is anxious to give them a 21st century moniker. Sadly, the best it can do is the completely forgettable 'multimedia computer'.
It's about much more than a mere product name. With the iPod, Apple not only branded a music player, but a whole new lifestyle and business segment. 

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