What does the future have in-store for telco retail?

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For years, the conversation around telco retail has been dominated by store closures and the shift to online. Carphone Warehouse, for example, was one of the UK’s largest independent retailers until it moved its operations online and closed 531 stores in March 2020. Its reasoning for this was cited as a change in consumer behavior, growing preference for SIM-only tariffs and the dissociation of devices and tariffs.

About the author

David McGlew is Marketing Director at Openet, an Amdocs company.

However, Three Ireland’s recent investment of €27 million into revamping its stores across the country has raised questions about the future of retail for telcos, reopening the debate around the role retail can play as a sales or service channel for businesses in the industry. While Three Ireland obviously sees potential in this channel, it has diversified away from just offering mobile devices and tariff plans. Market research conducted by the company has encouraged it to widen its focus, in a move that has seen its new ‘Smart Lifestyle’ products – such as smart hubs, robot vacuum cleaners and security solutions, alongside audio and visual products – come to the fore.

Despite the monumental shift to online shopping caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, many consumers are still interested in in-store experiences. In fact, a recent survey from Foresight Factory, commissioned by Three Ireland, found that 60% of people still prefer shopping in-store rather than online. This could be attributed to the fact that there are certain experiences and levels of support that can only be gained from talking to someone face-to-face in-store. In terms of Three Ireland, it’s clear from its investment into its store estate that it is listening to this trend and adapting accordingly as it launches its new range of products. Other telcos should consider following suit in terms of the experience they are offering their customers if they want to compete in this evolving market. Ultimately, I believe this significant investment and evolving market trends signal the start of telcos needing to improve and widen the services they are offering to their customers to facilitate buying decisions.

Adapt or die

Three’s research suggesting consumers are going to demand additional in-store support and expertise during their buying decisions going forward is likely spot on. However, alongside new or improved in-store experiences, telcos need to reassess their product portfolio if they are to stay relevant in this changing marketplace. In particular, they should look to improve the quality of service and personalization they are offering customers by better leveraging new and evolving technologies, such as 5G, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML).

The integration of these improved experiences within both the physical and digital spheres will help operators stand out from the crowd. Consumers are used to the concept of omnichannel in other areas of retail, and this is what telcos need to be aiming for to attract and retain customers. It is the combination of expert in-store advice and AI and ML-enabled endpoints and experiences that will play a key role in boosting the take-up of telco products and services by enabling improved quality of service and personalized, omnichannel customer experiences.

Partnering for success

When it comes to expanding their product and service portfolio to adapt to new market demands and consumer retail preferences, working with an experienced third-party can be the key to success. While telcos are experts in their field, partnering with these companies can help them identify new revenue streams or product categories, especially when looking to explore possibilities away from their bread and butter. This is where Three Ireland has paved the way, by identifying demand and gaps in the market, and branching into lifestyle products in addition to traditional handsets, tariffs and broadband.

However, there can be a barrier to this type of collaboration. Due to their sheer scale, it can be complicated and expensive to allow third-parties access into their networks and IT systems, which is required for these partnerships to have the greatest impact. Therefore, many have put it off, unless there has been clear ROI and growth possibilities on a large scale. Fortunately, the advent of 5G can benefit telcos themselves in this instance, as well as their customers.

With 5G and new network functions, including the Network Exposure Function – which facilitates secure, robust, developer-friendly access to exposed network services and capabilities – and cloud-native monetization solutions built into the network as microservices, telcos can facilitate collaboration by making it easier and more cost-effective to collaborate with third-parties. This can help drive 5G innovation by enabling developers to rapidly launch new value-added services. When combined with cloud-native microservices, this can ensure the telco’s architecture is flexible, controllable and future-proofed. Ultimately, facilitating the development and roll-out of innovative new services will not only reduce costs and increase ROI, but will make the end-user experience more fulfilling.

It’s an exciting time for telco retail as the market evolves and new trends appear, as exemplified by Three Ireland’s substantial investment. For other telcos to follow suit and expand their revenue streams to capitalize on these new consumer expectations, they must look at how they can offer new products and services to meet this demand. Working effectively with the right partners can help them cement an effective omnichannel strategy and launch exciting new offerings to market, they just need the right digital network tools to make this happen.

David McGlew is Marketing Director at Openet, an Amdocs company.