The last thing I expect when I’m looking for a phone is to see a pink vacuum cleaner called ‘Hetty’ and a psychedelic stripey fridge a couple of feet away.
However, I can’t ignore the sight of a smiley Hetty peering up at me while I consider the differences between the BlackBerry 8900, Nokia N97 and HTC Magic.
I am in Phones 4u’s concession inside Currys Megastore in Wednesbury in the West Midlands, visiting the first store-in-store format between these two retail giants that forms what is regarded as an unlikely union.
The trial concession opened on 1 August in DSG’s flagship 60,000 sq ft Currys Megastore, just off junction nine of the M6.
I’m here to assess how Phones 4u fits into a Currys Megastore. Most specifically, how Phones 4u’s strong sales culture sits with Currys’ reputation for a more laid-back service culture.
The car park is typical of any UK retail park and is only at a quarter of its capacity (not bad considering it’s a Thursday lunchtime and we are supposed to be in a consumer meltdown). There seems a heavy bias towards Land Rovers and Ford Focuses.
Currys’ navy blue and red sign dominates the horizon, looming large over the retail park with Next and sister company PC World also prominent.
Families and businessmen on their lunch breaks make up the profile of Currys’ shoppers.
The first thing I notice is the vastness of the store – the white walls are decked with appliances and rows and rows of products that seemingly go on forever.
The layout is stark and I’m immediately hit with the bright strip lighting and the buzz of electrical equipment in the background, as I walk through the doors.
Categories are organised into hubs ranging from home appliances to computer games.
To the left are the essential home appliances including cookers, fridges and vacuum cleaners. Along the back wall is the home entertainment section with hi-fi separates, TVs, DVD players and speakers. On the right are the personal entertainment devices, such as laptops, netbooks and computer consoles. Along from the entrance are the customer service points run by the ‘Tech Guys’, a Kodak film centre and a broadband centre.
I browse the aisles for around 15 minutes before a Currys’ member of staff approaches me.
I’ve come in looking for Phones 4u, and half expected to find it tucked away at the back of the store. But the concession has a prominent position in the centre of the store, appearing like a self-enclosed island or cordoned off ‘pen’. The Phones 4u and Currys’ amalgamated logo hangs down from the exposed steel beams and directly above the Phones 4u sales area.
The staff wear the same uniform as Currys’ staff – a navy blue polo shirt but with the combined logo. However, a change in uniform doesn’t mean the staff have changed their usual approach. It took around two minutes for one ?of the four members of staff to approach me in the Phones 4u section.
Stands around the section include a dedicated BlackBerry display, a Nokia 5800 ‘Comes with Music’ section and colour co-ordinated displays of orange, red and blue. The colour theme has been extensively applied, even to the glass storage cabinets with diagonal colour stripes on them to attract the eye.
There are two openings for customers into the Phones 4u pen with all four walls displaying dummy handsets. There are no laptops at this stage, but a combination of pay as you go and contract mobiles. The range is similar to a typical Phones 4u store, with the major brands as well as a section for ‘clearance’ phones.
The dummy phones are displayed around the walls with the stock in cabinets underneath.
The space inside the area is set out with the signature individual Phones 4u desks and computers for staff to sell contracts. Aside from the Currys customer services, it is the only seated selling area in the whole store.
The assisted sales environment in the Phones 4u pen contrasts sharply with the rest of the store, which feels closer to a B&Q – where you choose the product you like and then ask a Currys staffer to fetch it from the shelf.
The customers I spoke to were not aware of the concession. One person says: ‘I had an hour to kill and I was just wandering about, I didn’t notice it all.’
Another customer says: ‘I was just browsing, it’s interesting to see it in there, but I didn’t actually stop to see anything.’
One security guard at the store adds: ‘It’s a good thing because if you’re shopping, you might see a good deal on a phone.’
Given it is early days, I think the concession has a lot of potential. It is odd at first to see the Phones 4u logo in such a large Currys store, but the more you browse, the more sense it makes.
However, the family-oriented Currys customer and Phones 4u salesperson are not comfortable bedfellows, so it is not a completely natural fit.
That said, if you are shopping for a laptop, games console, camera or MP3 ?player, it makes sense to see those devices paired with a connection.
If the trend of device and connectivity (fixed or mobile) becoming increasingly inter-dependent continues, consumers will demand a store that offers both, with the best range, prices and service. And it is difficult to imagine Currys being able to do that without Phones 4u’s scale and expertise in mobile.
Q&A with John Welsh, Phones 4u business development director
Mobile: What was the thinking behind the concession?
Welsh: At Phones 4u, we are always looking for opportunities to reach a different customer base and increase our market share. Currys is clearly a business focused on customer experience and in-store offerings.
It generally has a base of customers that are different from Phones 4u on the high street, and it is about looking at a different customer segments.
How did the store opening go?
The store opened on Saturday (1 August) and we deliberately opened it without any [marketing] activity around it. We want to understand how much business we pick up just by being here because we don’t know the size of the opportunity. We will be looking at the levels of interest and engagement.
Why did you decide to go to the Wednesbury Megastore?
It was predominantly the choice of DSG for them to do it in their biggest store, in terms of physical size. DSG were keen to do it at this site because it is a destination store for people in Birmingham. They were already trading mobile and accessories.
How did you choose the team for the store?
It is a Phones 4u store operating in Currys. It was a process of finding a team that would travel to that location and work different shifts, as well as being familiar with our procedures and strong professional representatives of Phones 4u.
How will the team interact with Currys’ staff?
We have been very clear that if a customer approaches a Phones 4u staff member with a query, the response will be to show them to the right area of the store. A Currys member of staff will hand over to Phones 4u staff if there are queries on mobile.
Will the staff be cross-selling products?
The staff will go through the Phones 4u sales process and identify whether a customer needs broadband mobile or fixed and media, and will pass them across to Currys if they need to.
What targets have you set the staff?
We have deliberately not set any targets as this venture is an unknown entity. It is still early days, but I am very encouraged by the results so far.
Would you expand into other stores