Inside Dublin’s Mobile Retail Scene (Part 1)

On a recent trip to Ireland, I visited the major network operators and consumer electronics retailers in the country, including Harvey Norman, which is building a reputation as a company to watch when it comes to selling connected devices. More on that in part two of this series, but first, some initial thoughts on the Irish telecom market and operator stores.

Overview of the Irish Telecom Market

For those unfamiliar with the Irish market, there are three mobile networks. Vodafone leads in mobile phone subscriptions with about 34% share, followed by Three (29%) and Eir (23%). Tesco’s virtual network operator business takes an impressive 8% and Virgin Mobile holds about 2.5%, according to the Commission for Communications Regulation. There are also numerous consumer electronics retailers including DID Electrical, Currys, Harvey Norman and Power City.

Like other European players, all the major networks and retailers are suffering from a saturated, slowing market. Smartphone sales are dominated by Apple and Samsung, leaving little room for others. That’s not to say others aren’t participating. Xiaomi is notable for its strong progress, particularly in the sub-€300 segment. TCL has always done well in Ireland with a dedicated team on the ground, and the Nokia brand is still around thanks to HMD Global. In terms of brands to watch, Honor is pushing hard to grow its share; Google Pixel is starting to build a presence but doesn’t appear to have the traction it has recently gained in Germany and the UK.

First Impression of Operator Stores

As in other markets, the focus on Apple and Samsung is palpable in all the major retailers, a good example being Eir, which has prominent branding for both companies as you enter its central Dublin store.

As I noted in my recent blog post about a visit to UK stores, dependence on devices from these two manufacturers is higher than ever. It has become the path of least resistance as more and more people get hooked on the iPhone. For the rest of the market, Samsung offers attractive products at every price range and that satisfy most requirements.

I see this as a worrying development, but one that essentially reflects consumer demand. However, as an operator I’d be very concerned about my ever-increasing dependence on two suppliers. At least in Ireland there’s some evidence of other phone-makers having a chance to compete, most notably at Harvey Norman, where there’s a wide array of products.

Catering for Older Customers

Something that impressed me was the focus on helping older customers, who often prefer visiting a physical store to get support rather than reaching out online or over the phone. Vodafone Ireland has launched an initiative called Hi Digital — Drop-In Fridays offering free practical support for those aged over 65 about using their phones, tablets and other devices in partnership with charity Alone. Eir has a dedicated podium in store offering “age-friendly care” with a direct connection to specially trained customer service staff.

Commercially, this feels like a smart move as older customers often have specific needs that can take a long time to deal with, so being able to point them to an in-store phone with dedicated age-friendly support is a win-win. It’s also important to cater for this audience as they are typically loyal and reliable customers.

Identity Crisis at Three

Reflecting the challenges of mobile retailing, it was interesting to visit the Three store in central Dublin. Although there was the usual array of smartphones, wireless headphones, smart home gadgets and other accessories like phone cases, I was astonished to see a diversification into the gifting market. A network operator store isn’t the first place I’d think of to buy water bottles, Polaroid cameras, mini retro Pac-Man machines, candles, dog bowls, doggie raincoats or pet hoodies, to name a few.

I’m struggling to understand this decision, and judging by the number of items on sale, I wonder if it’s an experiment that failed to meet expectations. However, looking at Three’s Irish website, these items appear to be part of a lifestyle store that initially focused on smartphone-related accessories and other connected devices such as smart home products, but seems to have diversified into a variety of non-mobile-related gifts.

It could be that Three has successfully profiled its users and identified customer segments to target, like pet owners — and I note that it sells products such as connected pet feeders. But from discussions I had in the store, I didn’t get the feeling it’s been a huge success. I admire Three for trying to do something different, but perhaps this was a step too far.

Tomorrow, I’ll follow up on this article with a look at Harvey Norman and a visit to a Currys store.