Back to the Shop Floor

A Taste of Retailing at EE’s Oxford Street Store

I’ve always been interested in retailing, whether it’s visiting shops or ending up behind the till in my father-in-law’s family business in Cornwall when I’m on holiday. If the chance presents itself to roll up my sleeves and spend some time working in a store, particularly a mobile phone shop, I grab it with both hands. As an analyst it’s far too easy to become detached from the reality of solving real customers’ everyday problems.

This time I swapped my red shirt (see Retail Reality) for a bright yellow one and headed off to EE’s shiny new flagship store on Oxford Street. After a warm welcome from manager Jenny and the rest of the team it was straight down to work.

EE’s new format features a podium at the front of the store where a member of staff can greet customers as they arrive, find out what they need and direct them to the appropriate member of staff as soon as possible. This was an ideal job for me to start with because it gave me a rapid introduction to the real-life demands placed on mobile retailers every day. Later on, I tried out different tasks to get a feel for all aspects of the business.


As with my last experience working in a mobile store, it soon became clear that selling phones is only a small part of the job. In saturated markets like the UK almost everybody has a phone, so a good proportion of customers are people wanting help. Their number has been swollen by the growing complexity of the devices on offer. When a smartphone is more powerful than PCs from a few years ago, with a dazzling array of features, services and apps, it comes as no surprise that customers often get confused and need a helping hand.

As always, it was incredibly rewarding to be able to help customers, whether restoring an address book from a SIM card or walking through the set-up on a smartphone. In every case the customer left smiling and doubtless with a more positive impression of EE.

In a world where there are few new customers, merely the ones you already have and the ones you can lure from rivals, this type of approach is essential. Gaining emotional engagement with customers means they’re more likely to return, stay on your network and tell their friends about the great experience they had. Little wonder EE focuses so diligently on the net promoter scores of its shops and individual staff members.

Having a chance to work with EE was particularly interesting because of the journey the company has undertaken over the past four years. It’s nothing short of remarkable that it has managed to bring together two companies — Orange and T-Mobile — introduce a new single brand, and rebrand and rationalise every one of its hundreds of shops.

With this type of wholesale transformation there are always going to be challenges and in some areas it’s still a work in progress. But the staff I worked with definitely felt there’s been some very positive steps forward in the past 12 months.

As with every experience there are always areas where you can validate theories and small nuggets you can pick up.

It’s no secret that Apple and Samsung now dominate the smartphone market, and based on my experience in EE’s store this shows no sign of letting up. The number of customers who without prompting asked for an iPhone or a Samsung phone was staggering. It underlines the challenge that rival brands face as they battle to take share from the two market leaders. That said, I found from my day in the shop that there’s growing interest in Sony devices. This echoes CCS Insight’s view that Sony has a good opportunity to grow its business in 2014.

Other observations included consumer demand for mobile broadband products. Dongles and cellular Wi-Fi devices are incredibly popular. It was perhaps the result of working in a store in central London, where there are a huge number of foreign visitors looking for a cost-effective Internet connection during their stay. This was also reflected in the number of prepaid devices that were sold. EE has recognized this and has ensured that staff in key stores speak a variety of languages.

One final observation is the growing range of products and services that the store has to support. Long gone are the days of just selling phones and subscriptions. Store staff not only need to be experts on every aspect of a smartphone but they need to know how to sell tablets, fixed broadband, a diverse range of accessories and more.

I appreciate that working in a flagship store offers only one perspective on the mobile retailing challenge, and my next plan is to work in a smaller, provincial store to experience both ends of the spectrum. What the Oxford Street store did offer was a non-stop, full-on day addressing the diverse needs of an impressive number of people. If I wanted any evidence of that, it came as I finally went for my “lunch break” at 4:30 pm with manager Jenny before returning to carry on working until 7 pm.

A big thank you to everyone at EE who made my day in retail possible. I’ll certainly be popping back soon to catch up with the Oxford Street team and look forward to my next retail adventure.