iSmash: There's no reason why high street tech retailers can't thrive

At a time when Carphone Warehouse is shutting stores and Maplin has gone out of business, it is noteworthy when a tech retailer decides to expand their physical footprint.

But that’s exactly what repair specialist iSmash is doing, having announced plans 70 more locations over the course of the next three years.

Intense competition from online rivals has left many high street stores unable to compete in terms of price and service and while others have adopted multi-channel strategies, the transition hasn’t been as smooth as hoped.

But iSmash believes trends in the mobile market, a lack of a major rival, and the availability of retail space make it an ideal time to expand.

iSmash origins

Julian Shovlin was inspired to found iSmash following an experience at university when he was unable to find someone to fix his damaged mobile phone.

“I fixed my phone myself and thus the idea for iSmash was born,” he tells TechRadar Pro, adding that the popularity of smartphones and their increasing importance to everyday life made it seem like a huge gap in the market.

The first store opened on the Kings Road in London in 2013 and there are now 26 locations on the high street, in train stations, and in shopping centres. The expansion will see iSmash cover a wider geographic area of the UK and an international push might not be far off.

The thinking is simple. Smartphone sales have plateaued - the market even shrank for the first time ever earlier this year – thanks to a lack of hardware innovation and rising costs. The longer someone holds onto a phone the more likely it is they will damage it, and with consumers less keen to replace it, repairs become a more attractive option.

But anecdotal evidence would suggest a lot of people don’t get their handsets repaired. After all, it’s not uncommon to see a smashed display on the tube for example. So why don’t people get their phones fixed?

Repair not replace

“There’s a perception that it will cost the earth to repair a phone, which is not the case and it is a much more affordable option than replacing the handset,” suggest Shovlin. “Secondly, people believe there’s no convenient solution that gets them their device back swiftly. Lastly, some people simply want an upgrade and feel that it’s not worth the money to repair when they are planning to get a new phone anyway.

“We are addressing the first two points in our proposition – the average cost of a repair through iSmash is under £100 and takes less than 30 minutes.”

It’s this desire for convenience which is why iSmash is expanding via the high street rather than online. People are too attached to their handsets to send it off for any extended period of time.

“Key for us in particular is the fact that in order for customers to fully enjoy the benefits of our service (a while-you-watch 30-minute repair) they must visit our stores on the high-street. Currently around 50 per cent of all of our appointments are booked online in advance, highlighting our ability to secure customers online but service them in store.

High Street future

Shovlin believes that despite the failure of Maplin and the difficulties facing Carphone Warehouse don’t mean that tech retailers on the High Street can’t thrive so long as they adapt to changing demand.

“As obvious as it might sound, for bricks and mortar stores in the tech industry, the way to thrive is to remain agile,” he says. “This means embracing new technology and listening to, and actioning insights from, your customers.

“Whilst a number of established brands on the high street are struggling financially, there is an opportunity for those with a strong proposition to thrive. At iSmash our offering is different, we offer an in-demand service that is best accessed on the high street.

“The closure of other high street chains also presents a unique opportunity for growing retail businesses as it means that prime retail space is now cheaper than it’s been in a long while.”

Shovlin suggests the aforementioned market trends have fostered a ‘repair not replace’ culture in the UK. But given the growing public interest in plastic and electronic waste, shouldn’t device manufacturers make it easier for people to carry out their own repairs?

He concedes that this would make consumers happy but doesn’t think it’s going to happen any time soon.

“I think that the idea would certainly be well received by consumers. However, generally speaking, the focus from handset manufacturers is currently on creating slimmer, sleeker and more powerful devices – unfortunately this often comes to the detriment of durability.”

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.