Last week, I attended a media event at EE’s new experience store in Westfield shopping centre in west London, the day before its official opening.
The launch of the EE Studio store comes as the relevance of physical retail stores is increasingly being questioned. In our recent consumer research, only 15% of mobile phone owners in the UK said they plan to visit a phone shop in the next six months.
But this is much more than just another shop. It aims to bring technology to life, showcase EE’s latest products, encourage participation and give people a glimpse of the future. Further launches are planned in Cardiff, London and Manchester later in the year.
The Westfield store is divided into several areas. The shop front includes digital signage to promote EE’s latest products and in-store events, and visitors can bring up a virtual store assistant by scanning a QR code to give them tips on what to see inside. A welcome zone aims to entice people in. Visitors can sit on sofas or at a workstation, grab a free drink or chat with an EE advisor.
One of the highlights is a gaming zone, which includes racing simulators and a virtual reality experience. It’s free and you don’t need to be an EE customer to have a go. It’s all part of the operator’s goal to become the UK’s number-one destination for gaming. In 2022, it established an internal team dedicated to gaming and launched a series of bundles combining devices, cloud gaming access and mobile data. But gaming areas in retail aren’t new and although they’re often popular, EE will need to make a sustained investment to stand out in a competitive market.
A “digital spa” area, which EE says is the first of its kind in the UK, provides shoppers with a moment to relax. It aims to promote well-being through guided meditations and an immersive sensory room. Customers can also try on smartwatches, check their heart rate and learn about other health-related features.
The store has a small stage area designed as a flexible venue for events and workshops, and a place for people to try products and technology. A connected home space includes smart appliances, a smart TV showcasing EE content, solutions to support home working and products to help children stay safe online. One of its main objectives is to create packages tailored to people’s homes and preferences.
In contrast to traditional mobile stores, EE Studio dedicates a relatively small space to showcasing new mobile phones. This caters for people who like to try before buying but is also an acknowledgement of an evolving purchasing journey that’s increasingly moving online. In our research, 55% of Britons told us they own a mobile phone that was bought online, up from 47% in 2018. By contrast, only just over a third said it was bought in a physical store.
As my colleague Ben Wood pointed out, the overwhelming focus is on Apple and Samsung phones. In a worrying metaphor for the industry, challenger brands such as Google Pixel, Oppo and Xiaomi receive very little shelf space. That’ll come as a big blow to them as stores present an ideal opportunity for people to get hands-on with phones from different brands.
Experience stores aren’t a new idea. In 2016, I remember O2 opening a new store in the same shopping centre based on very similar principles. And in Paris, Orange’s grand four-floor shrine to technology seemed to signal a new future for telecom retailing. Unfortunately, the latter closed earlier this year, presumably the victim of dwindling footfall and high costs.
So, what’s different this time? Bridget Lea, managing director of commercial at EE, told me that BT is more committed to the concept than other operators may have been in the past. And she outlined plans to continually update the store with new experiences and products to make sure it stays fresh and enticing. “It shouldn’t any longer be a case of selling something and see you in two years,” she said, “we want people to come back next week as well”.
Marc Allera, CEO of BT Consumer, said that the store offers a glimpse into the world of “new EE”. This refers to his long-term vision for the brand in which it takes a greater role in customers’ lives by expanding beyond traditional connectivity services. The push into gaming is a good example of this; another is the recent launch of home security and cybersecurity products. Soon, EE is expected to also offer car and travel insurance. It follows the move by BT last year to instil EE as its flagship brand in the consumer market (see Instant Insight: BT Announces Consumer Branding Shift).
Mr Allera acknowledged continued migration to online channels, but insisted many people still value the personal touch. Our research shows this is particularly important for older customers who may be less confident interacting with an operator online. He also highlighted how retail can play a role in local communities as a hub for people to come together.
There’s no doubt EE Studio is an impressive and refreshing retail space that breaks the mould of traditional phone stores by moving far beyond just selling devices and airtime. As customer behaviour continues to evolve, EE is right to offer a blend of face-to-face, online and other forms of interaction.
But opening swish experience stores isn’t a cheap endeavour and EE will undoubtedly rely heavily on its suppliers to shoulder some of the costs. It’s also a path trodden by others in the industry before, and not always successfully. As bricks-and-mortar retail tries to find its place amid the trend to online, EE will need to ensure it pays back on its investment. I’ll be keeping a keen eye on how it evolves.
Check out my walk-through of the store in the video below.
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