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Shopping Mall Wars

Telus now owns Black's Photography and Bell recently snapped up The Source. Both are suiting up for a good old slugfest.


September 1, 2009  


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Word came in early September that Telus had purchased the 113-store Black’s Photography chain. Several months previously, Bell Canada Enterprises snapped up The Source, netting itself 750 stores of that handy electronics supplier that used to be known, years ago, as Radio Shack.

What is going on?

It’s all about incumbent wireless companies getting ready to wrestle each other and stomp the latest batch of new entrants before they even officially launch. And it appears the incumbents think the battleground is going to be the shopping mall.

Bell’s purchase makes sense for a couple of reasons. First, Rogers has an exclusive agreement with The Source for wireless products and services.

This expires shortly and when it does, we will see a splash of blue as Bell wireless products and services replace them. The relationship worked for Rogers, which reportedly garnered 100,000 subscribers per year via the electronics chain.

Bell also has an opportunity to sell its digital TV and home phone services, but the big opportunity is the Internet. All those computers, game consoles, digital cameras and other electronic goodies at The Source either depend on connectivity, or offer greatly enhanced features if they’re networked.

The Telus response may, at first, seem like less of a fit. Sure, Black’s sells truckloads of digital cameras and they might as well connect to the world via the Telus network. In announcing the agreement, Telus spokespeople noted that more wireless devices are equipped with digital cameras, which are rapidly evolving to the point where they rival the capabilities and quality of dedicated cameras from just a few years ago. The lines between devices are once again blurring.

Still, can Telus-Black’s rival Bell-The Source? Sure it can, given a bit of time.

Bell has a head start on this. It has been preparing to give Rogers the boot for months now and I predict a full-on marketing and advertising assault will spearhead the introduction of Bell products to The Source.

But Black’s has built a good reputation with consumers, first for photo finishing and film cameras, then for helping consumers migrate to the digital imaging world.

With the right tools and training, Black’s staff can easily help people get connected, go mobile, and do whatever else Telus throws at them. Equally important, there is an opportunity for Telus (and Bell) to consolidate its presence in shopping malls, freeing up staff working at kiosks to do other things.

That will be important when the new guys join the marketplace.

DAVE Wireless, WIND Mobile, Public Mobile … they are all coming. Are they coming to a mall near you? That remains to be seen, but I am sure we’ll witness a lot of new relationships between wireless service providers and retailers.

But it is not all going to be about selling. What these new entrants really need is an opportunity for potential customers to see and test the hardware. That can be done at events in a mall, on street-corners, in parks, at the beach, along a bike trail … in short, just about anywhere.

Actual sign-up and device purchases can be done on the Web, either at home or via mobile point of sale terminals, for a fraction of the cost of a bricks-and-mortar presence. And video, documentation, chats, forums and other online tools — if carefully crafted — can not only take the place of face-to-face discussions with sales people, but may even do a better job of informing potential customers. Providing that a company’s support is top-notch when there’s a problem, the consumer experience should be excellent.

Companies such as Dell and Apple have proven that selling complex technology online is not only easy, but contributes substantially to one’s revenue. Just make sure that the experience is straightforward, comfortable, and rewarding for the consumer.

If customers are buying online, they are comfortable with the virtual world. For the mobile arena, that means those Internet-savvy customers will be more open to higher value services such as wireless browsing and mobile applications, making them a company’s best revenue generators.

Bell and Telus are suiting up for a good old-fashioned slugfest. The new entrants may find their best response is to refuse to show up by finding new and novel ways to reach potential customers.

Trevor Marshall is a Toronto-based reporter, writer and observer of the Canadian wireless industry. He can be reached (on his mobile) at 416-878-7730 or trevor@wordstm.com.

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With the right tools and training, Black’s staff can easily help people get connected, go mobile, and do whatever else Telus throws at them.