I read today of Sony Ericsson plans to close its flagship retail store in London after it failed to meet targets and amid a wider restructuring for the handset manufacturer. Frankly, I’m not surprised. I made comparitive visits to both Nokia and Sony Ericsson’s London stores recently and the customer experience was very different.
Sony Ericsson’s store is located on High Street Kensington – a strong retail location – but not as central to the main tourist shopping area as Nokia’s outlet, which is sited just 50 metres from Oxford Circus, the heart of London’s shopping district.
My visit to the Sony Ericsson store was characterised by poorly trained sales staff and broken display models. It was supposed to be the flagship, the place where Sony Ericsson’s products were shown in the best possible environment and yet, one of the first handsets I picked up was physically broken and on additional units I tried the software had crashed.
My conversations with the sales staff revealed they had about the same level of knowledge as the average mobile phone store employee – i.e. very little. They were unable to tell me much about the products beyond what was already shown on the printed specification sheets and seemed more interested in a poorly orchestrated hard sales process than sharing the ‘magic’ of Sony Ericsson’s products.
The in-store environment was reasonably pleasant. It reminded me of a modern furniture showroom. However, there was nothing remarkable about it. Indeed, the Three store right across the street was considerably more impressive from a visual standpoint.
My visit left me with a sense of disappointment and a realisation that, despite its status as a flagship store, there was nothing there beyond what I could get from any other retail outlet stocking Sony Ericsson products – no limited editions, no lifestyle demonstrations and no experience zones where you could get a sense of what the technology could actually provide for you.
While I sympathise with the considerable number of Sony Ericsson employees who are facing job cuts, both in London and other operations around the world, I can’t help but feel the company is actually better off without this store. Personally, I found it weakened my view of the company and its products rather than enhanced it. I’ve had a wide range of Ericsson phones since they released the GS18 handset (circa. 1996), the first ever data-enabled mobile phone (at the lightening fast speed of 9.6 Kbs over a circuit-switched connection) and am generally impressed by their dedication to user experience in their product portfolio – however, I found nothing in their store to persuade me to become a customer again.
In contrast, Nokia’s store provided a unique experience. The interior design was distinctive, all smoky grey and polished black, with lighting that created a calm and stylish atmosphere.
However, the most impressive feature was the staff. I can remember chatting to Cliff Crosbie, who leads the rollout of Nokia’s retail experience, when he spoke at MEX in 2007. He told me that they invest so much in training the staff at their flagship stores they need them to stay for 18 – 24 months before they get a return on their investment.
I found direct evidence of this when I spent some time at the shop. Many of the staff members I spoke with seemed to have a genuinely expert knowledge of their products and the wider mobile technology landscape. They were also keen to show demonstrations and provide tips and tricks which might not be obvious to the average user. It was done in an unhurried, relaxed and professional way.
The retail environment itself was structured around a large number of demo handsets, which were laid out in such a way as to encourage the user to experiment with them. There were also themed areas, showing how Nokia products could be used in conjunction with headsets, speakers and other accessories to create particular lifestyle experiences.
One of the things which impressed me most was the cleaners. Every time a customer finished using one of the demo handsets, a cleaner would appear from nowhere and quickly polish the product so that it was shiny and ready for the next customer. It was done quietly and subtly, but the end result was that any time you went to pick up a product, it was free from fingerprints and grease, ready to be tested in the best possible environment.
I’ve written before about the importance of the retail experience in forming the overall customer perception of a mobile product or service and I’d like to re-iterate this. The first time most customers get to interact with a new mobile experience is in the retail environment. Why then does the industry continue to insist on stores stocked with inert plastic models, wall displays consisting of nothing more inspiring than a selection of car chargers and sales people who think spikey hair and a shiny suit are the only qualifications they need to hit their commission targets?
Cliff Crosbie of Nokia made another relevant point about this in his MEX presentation: the industry is spending billions of dollars on R&D each year to develop incredible new technologies and yet continues to entrust ‘Saturday boys hungover from the night before’ with the process of showcasing these to the customer.
The demise of Sony Ericsson’s London flagship should not be seen as an indication that these kind of stores aren’t working, but should act as an incentive for the industry to increase its investment in the retail experience and provide stores where users can be tempted by all the amazing innovations mobile can offer.