Two thirds of Brits bought a mobile phone online in 2020

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More people than ever are buying new mobile phones online rather than on the high street because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to new research, meaning retailers and operators will have rethink the role of physical stores going forward.

CCS Insight says 63% of Brits who bought a new phone last year did so online, compared to 52% in 2019 and 36% before that.

Inevitably, social distancing and lockdown measures have been a major factor. Although mobile phone shops were able to open in between national lockdowns, they are currently closed. Meanwhile, Carphone Warehouse shut 500 of its locations in March.

Mobile phone stores

However, analysts suggest the pandemic has acted as a catalyst for a rising trend. Consumers value the convenience and lower prices of online, while they are much more comfortable with doing their own research.

Historically, there has been a desire for physical interaction with a chosen device and for face to face communication when discussing complex contract arrangements.

"Rather than waiting for normality to return to the high street, connectivity-hungry Brits are happy to buy devices without seeing them in the flesh first," said Kester Mann, Director of Consumer and Connectivity at CCS Insight. "Our survey results reflect a growing confidence to buy based on listed features, a familiarity with the leading brands, their design and how they work, and recommendations from friends and family.

“The pandemic has brought permanent changes to the way people shop that will fuel further growth in online channels in the coming years.”

However, this doesn’t mean the death of the high street just yet, rather that stores might play a different role as part of wider omni-channel experiences. A fifth of Brits would to a shop for tech support, while 18% would go to browse devices and accessories, and 13% would go to discuss a contract.

"Phone shops will remain a vital channel for the industry, but it's clear their role is evolving," Mann added. "Retailers need to find the right balance between selling, supporting customers and showcasing new technology to create some much-needed buzz for the sector. Successful companies will be those best able to integrate their strategy for retail and online selling, offering customers a coherent and complementary experience at every step of the way".

CCS also uncovered evidence that the market for trade-ins and part exchanges is set to rise thanks to rising handset prices, a focus on sustainability, and demand for new use cases such as remote work and lelarning. However it is also possible that people will keep onto their phones for longer and that that the industry is moving away from a standard two-year refresh cycle.

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.