While it’s difficult nowadays to write about telecoms or the mobile sector without drifting off into other areas of the TMT industry, Zeitgeist spent an evening last month as a guest of Accenture in Cambridge, discussing the successes and failures of the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. It came in the middle of a year so far that has already some significant shifts from mobile companies, in terms of branding, operations and revenue streams.
2013 has seen some interesting news in mobile. The week before last marked, incredibly, the 40th anniversary of the first phone call made from a mobile phone. This year also saw Research in Motion renaming itself to BlackBerry, with shares sliding 8% by the end of the product launch announcement for its eponymous 10 device. It saw Sky acquire Telefonica’s broadband operations, while responding to major complaints about the speed of its own broadband service. It has seen Huawei, which in Q4 of 2012 sold more smartphones than either Nokia, HTC or BlackBerry, come under scrutiny particularly in the US for its lack of transparency. Moreover, after much editorial ink spilled on Facebook’s lack of initiative and innovation in mobile, the release of the ‘super-app’ Chat Heads has piqued interest as it looks to compete with Whatsapp, Viber, iMessage et al., which Ovum reckons cost MNOs $23bn in lost revenue every year. This news mostly pertained to developed markets; JWT Intelligence’s interview with Jana CEO Nathan Eagle features some interesting insights on mobile trends in emerging markets.
Interestingly, 2013 thus far has also been witness to the beginning of more flexible contracts and payments. At the end of March, T-Mobile USA announced it would offer the iPhone to customers for cheaper than its rivals, and customers would not have to sign a contract. It effectively ends handset subsidies – something which Vodafone pledged to do last year and was punished by the stock market when it failed to do so – spreading the full cost of the phone over two years “as a separate line item on the monthly bill”, which may strike many as still quite a commitment. Customers must pay the bill for the phone in full in order to be able to end their tenure with the network. The New York Times elaborates, “Despite T-Mobile’s promise to be more straightforward than other carriers, some consumers might still find it confusing that they have to pay an extra device fee after paying $100 up front for an iPhone.” In the UK, O2 is going a similar route. At the end of last week the company announced similar plans to T-Mobile. While still keeping contracts as an option, the FT explained the company was looking to a plan, dubbed O2 Refresh, “that decoupled the cost of the phone from the cost of calls, texts and data. Customers will be able to buy a phone outright, or pay in instalments over time, and then sign up to a separate service contract that can be cancelled or changed at any time.” Although O2 said in the article that they expected customers to pay the same as they would on a standard contract, the new plans by both network providers will surely add to customer churn. Brands will have to work harder to develop true loyalty rather than relying on the lock-in feeling that adds to switching costs for many customers. Conversely, this added flexibility may make the providers feel less like utilities, creating more choice and differentiation.
At the aforementioned conference Zeitgeist attended last month, Accenture hosted an evening they dubbed “MWC: Fiesta or Siesta?”. It soon became apparent that many of the speakers invited were less than enthused with the conference this year. This was partly because there were no extraordinary leaps in technology or hardware on offer. It was also because of, as one speaker lamented, “the proliferation of suits”. Another speaker complained it was like listening to The Archers: long storylines “that ended up having no conclusion”. The very essence of the conference though is not about trendsetting, or cool new consumer devices. Mobile operators are utilities, the excitement around such an event is not going to be as visceral as that of SXSW or Embedded World. It led some to wonder whether the “real innovation was being developed in such ‘niche’ events, away from the “glitz”. Moreover, perhaps Samsung’s decision not to launch their new S4 handset at the Congress alluded to this lack of excitement, or at least a wish not to be drowned out by other announcements.
Among exciting trends on display at MWC, M2M – something Zeitgeist has written about before – was front and centre at the conference, particularly with regard to cars. Phablets continued to make their foray into the consumer’s view, with bigger screens meaning more data transfer. Zeitgeist wondered whether such a transition would put even more pressure on networks already struggling with large data handling. And although Firefox’s new OS gave some – including those at GigaOm – hope that it could provide more innovation through diversified competition in the marketplace, others, including Tony Milbourn, Executive Chairman of Intelligent Wireless, speaking at the event, thought it “underwhelming” after “lots of hype”. Bendable screens were also to be found at MWC, but those speaking at the Accenture conference like Richard Windsor of Radio Free Mobile said it was early days and much was still to be seen from this new type of phone. Its potential though, he readily conceded, was formidable. Wearable technology was a huge issue at the conference and one that Zeitgeist is particularly interested to see develop, especially as companies like Apple, Sony and Google enter the fray.
It seemed then that the Mobile World Congress failed to reflect what is turning out to be a tumultuous year in telecoms. Not only is there an increasing desire to address consumer needs – in the case of more flexible contracts and more consumer-facing company names – but as economies sputter their way toward ostensible recovery we are also starting to see M&A activity return to the sector. Time will tell whether new technologies, such as M2M or bendable screens can breathe new life into the sector.
In December, shopping transactions saw a 187% increase, year-on-year. This sounds like good news for the economy, and surely the high street. Unfortunately, this increase was purely for mobile shopping, as reported by IBM. Brand Republic, which picked up the story, noted “mobile traffic on retailers’ websites rocketed by 169%, meaning 15% of all traffic came from mobile devices during December”. The principal attractions of mobile commerce are easy to identify: it allows you to purchase items from anywhere with a phone signal rather than travelling into a store. It also allows the customer to shop around far more easily than would be possible on a high street for the best deal.
The drift toward mobile commerce, however beneficial and efficient for the customer, is part of myriad factors that are having a pejorative effect on the high street. Another, recently noted in a fantastic editorial in The Financial Times, detailed the onus shoppers must face up to, as a nation obsessed with the material quest for the very best deal possible. “We are all going to hell in a shopping basket”, read the headline.
“Through the internet we can now get relevant information instantaneously, compare deals and move our money at the speed of electronic impulses. Consumers and investors have never been so empowered. Yet these great deals come at the expense of our jobs and wages, and widening inequality.”
183 retailers fell into administration last year. The internet must shoulder a large part of the blame for this, as customers shift to the relaxation of shopping at home. Experian Hitwise reported that Boxing Day 2011 was the biggest ever day for online retail in the UK, an incredible stat (one of many covered by eConsultancy), especially while circumstances for bricks-and-mortar stores seem so dire.
However, while digital technology is keeping people from shopping on the high street, it is also helping it evolve. Recently, CNBC reported from New York on the National Retail Federation’s annual convention. Technology companies like Intel and IBM were front and centre, and willing to engage ever more deeply with brands. 73% of consumers were willing to share their demographic information with retailers in order to improve targeted communications. In the store itself, Macy’s has unveiled Beauty Spot, a digital mirror that lets you try on what you want, what is suggested to you by the mirror, and share your looks with your friends, according to TIME magazine. Also at the conference, Kraft featured a vending machine that featured face-recognition technology, registering your ethnographic details and dispensing samples based on that data.
The possibilities for clothing are significant, too. At the recent Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft unveiled a prototype digital mirror for retailers. PSFK noted it “relies on the Kinect gaming system and basically allows people to try on clothes before taking their final selection to the dressing room”. Moreover, last month, the e-tailer Gilt Groupe teamed up with GQ magazine to create a men’s high-fashion retail experience in the so-fashionable-it’ll-soon-be-uncool Meatpacking District of New York. The FT has more.
Such movements are part of a burgeoning trend toward blurring the boundaries between digital and bricks-and-mortar retail. But for the latter way of shopping, the problems are immediate. An article in this week’s The Economist referenced a report commissioned by the government in December that claimed “one in three of the nation’s high streets is failing“. Places like Argos, Mothercare and Thorntons plan to close up to one third of their shops. Conversely, the magazine references a survey conducted by Saatchi & Saatchi which detailed 16-29 year olds’ feelings on retail. Apart from enjoying a good shop, “42% said that, if they were to start a small business, it would be on the high street”. This puts a desire to see an epicentre of retail / beating heart of a town against an indolence born of the luxury of being able to shop while in the bathroom. To combat this dilemma of desires, Anne Robinson-lookalike Mary Portas has made several suggestions as shopping czar to the government, including requirements for a “quota of affordable shops”. This idea is pure lunacy. State intervention in market commerce is not a road we want to go down.
While the article offers some hope, detailing the importance of improvements to infrastructure, and making space above retailers into shops again rather than flats, the major threat is from online retailers. Last week, the Financial Times reported solemnly,
“Tesco [will] call a halt on new hypermarkets, believing the internet offers the most profitable future for non-food sales. Retail analysts believe Tesco’s admission marks a watershed moment for high street retail chains. Many have already seen their business models trampled over by the big supermarkets, but now they must follow the leader’s structural shift towards online sales, or face extinction.”
These are dire times for retailers, but things will not improve until they fully embrace the inevitable march of technology, both in their stores, and in people’s homes. With another recession looming, now is not the time to bury one’s head in the sand and hope for the best.