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Tuesday
Sep132011

Another Brick On The Shelf

In two weeks I will celebrate a milestone. It's actually somewhat of an anniversary and it occurs every two years. In many ways, this biennial event is more anticipated than my birthday. That's right, I'm due for a new cell phone. In addition to changing the way we communicate and coordinate with one another, the cellular industry has influenced us in quite a few other ways during its existence. The two year obligation has become a staple of telecommunications contracts. The subsidized equipment model makes it possible for consumers to rationalize (and amortize) pricey up-front equipment costs (I'm waiting for television content providers to catch on to this). But for all its innovation, the cell phone industry is still a twentieth century retailer when it comes to their brick and mortar stores. Let me tell you what I mean.

In preparation for my long-awaited upgrade, I began paying attention to what's current in the way of cellular devices a couple of weeks ago. After some preliminary online research, I narrowed my selection down to just a couple of phones and set out to "touch and feel". The increased capabilities of cell phones--and the cost that goes with them--has made the touch and feel more important to me on my last couple of exchanges. Though it may seem like a contradiction to the more utilitarian consumers, human factors is still a very important aspect of technology product design. I like to know how a device feels in my hand, what the screen actually looks like, how warm the battery gets, etc. Add to that the fact that I'm stuck with whatever I choose for two years and I end up pretty motivated to thoroughly fondle my phone before purchasing. One might surmise this is the reason cellular providers continue to operate (and even expand) brick and mortar stores.

I started my quest during a trip to Best Buy. I normally don't associate the big box consumer electronics retailer with cell phones, but there were some rather massive displays for all three of the big cellular providers taking up quite a bit of retail floor space, so I figured I'd check it out. Unfortunately, the store did not have any live demo phones for me to play with. That kind of made sense to me since the big three all operate brick and mortar stores of their own. Investing in quality, third-party retail coverage on top of that seems counterproductive. I get it.

I went across the street to the Verizon store, hoping for bettter luck. To their credit, the representative was very nice and tried her best to be helpful, even showing me her own phone when it turned out the store had no live demos of anything I was looking for. She also directed me to a store in town she knew had a complete arsenal of live demo phones. I visited that store the next day and, as it turns out, she was right. But why is that the only branded Verizon store in the city (and I've been to three now) with live demos of nearly every device?

I understand maintaining live demos of so many different handsets poses some logistical challenges. But if those challenges are big enough to force a store to stock its display shelves with non functioning plastic bricks, why bother with a store? I can see the phone and read the specs online. This afternoon I decided to make a stop at another branded Verizon store to check out a phone released only a few days ago. This store features a prominent marquee out front proclaiming "Premium Retailer" status. Premium retailer, I discovered, does not mean they carry live demo phones. When I pressed the salesman on the issue, he shrugged his shoulders and said "I guess it's just too expensive to carry demos of a $500 phone". How absurd! Why on earth would a company invest in a brick and mortar storefront--paying rent, utilities, and employees to demo current technology--but stop short of an extra $500 to put a live demo of that technology in the store?

A friend of mine who used to work in retail phone sales suggested it's perhaps a loss prevention issue. That at least makes logical sense. But again, if loss prevention is so expensive, why bother with the brick and mortar sales model? Besides, in this era of technology, with phones that can do everything but wash your car, how hard can it possibly be for a retail store to keep track of a couple dozen phones? The devices by their very nature communicate. Surely in the event of theft, Verizon has the technological capability to transform a functional phone into the brick they are currently putting on the shelf in hopes of enticing me to buy one. 

Maybe it's time to sharpen the role of technology in the retail store--especially one selling technology that could help. 

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