Inside Dublin’s Mobile Retail Scene (Part 2)

In the second article reflecting on my recent visit to Ireland, I share some insights about retailer Harvey Norman, which seems to be getting the formula right for selling mobile devices in the current climate, and from my experience in Currys. For observations from my visit to the main operator stores see here.

Harvey Norman Takes a Different Approach

In the past few months, I’ve heard nothing but positive things about retailer Harvey Norman. For those unfamiliar with the business, it’s an Australian multinational retailer that sells a mix of soft furnishings and consumer electronics including smartphones, tablets and PCs. It’s been present in Ireland since 2003 and now has 15 stores. Other notable markets are New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore.

Harvey Norman has recently announced plans to open a 57,000-square-foot store west of Birmingham, UK in a former Debenhams unit at the Merry Hill shopping centre.

When I entered the company’s Swords store located north of Dublin, I was a little perplexed about what all the fuss was about. The juxtaposition of walking through a showroom full of sofas and beds to get to the electrical section where smartphones and other connected products are sold felt a little odd. But when I got there, things became clearer.

Harvey Norman primarily sells SIM-free devices, so airtime is largely removed from the equation. This immediately makes the sale all about the product itself. And as consumers increasingly uncouple their phone purchases from the airtime, I believe we’re going to see SIM-free products becoming more popular. That’s going to pose a different retail challenge.

As soon as I started talking to the staff, it was clear why the company is doing such a great job. When customers enter the shop floor, agents engage with them, ensuring they have everything they need, and if they’re looking to make a purchase, the staff quickly determine exactly what they require. The knowledge and passion for the products is palpable, and their understanding of each manufacturer, their product range and all the features offered is far superior to the experience I’ve typically had when mystery shopping for connected devices.

I believe this is because staff aren’t only often incentivized for each sale, but also have commission clawed back if a product is returned, so making an informed sale to a customer and ensuring they leave the store happy is very important. This may be considered an old-fashioned approach to retailing, but it seems to work well for customers looking for a great deal in the increasingly homogenous consumer electronics market. Also, this desire to match customers with the right deal is reflected in the more diverse set of products on offer, rather than a complete reliance on Apple and Samsung.

All products were clearly and consistently labelled with the price and additional options such as insurance or a service to set up a new device and transfer content from an old phone to the new one. This is offered by the Lovetech team of technology experts who are on hand to help customers get new devices up and running or get support or repair advice on products they already own. Much of what Lovetech offers can be sold as a value-add to customers, giving them peace of mind when they make a purchase. It’s also a vehicle to help customers struggling with a product they have bought and who might otherwise just give up and return it.

I’m excited to see if Harvey Norman can successfully bring the formula of selling SIM-free devices to the UK. There’s little question this is an emerging opportunity that all retailers in the UK will need to start addressing.

Another Dismal Visit to Currys

If you read my previous blog posts you’ll know about my disappointing visit to the Currys store in London’s Westfield shopping centre last month. I thought I’d make another visit while I was in Ireland and unfortunately things did not improve.

Once again, the store seemed chaotic, with little energy and some products seemingly overstocked, while at the other extreme there were poorly merchandised or empty shelves that created a depressing shopping experience. There were more staff on hand to help than at Westfield, but they seemed more focused on standing around chatting than engaging with customers in the way that was so refreshing at Harvey Norman.

I left feeling increasingly concerned that Currys has really lost its way. At a time when bricks-and-mortar retailing is incredibly tough, the in-store experience needs to be better than ever and my recent experiences sadly don’t reflect that.


I hope these articles have provided a bit more colour on the Irish market. I always enjoy visiting, and not just because of the Guinness.

Ireland is often overlooked and badly underserved by companies that make the mistake of lumping it into a generic “UK and Ireland” territory, ignoring its unique characteristics. In some areas, it’s a market leader, with the best example being converged fixed–mobile services, where there are about 400,000 subscriptions, or roughly 10% of the population and over 20% of households — an astonishingly high level. The retail landscape is exciting too, particularly because of the interesting work that Harvey Norman is doing.

However, my biggest observation is that the companies that appear to be most successful are the ones that invest in having dedicated staff on the ground building close relationships with the local players. I look forward to my next visit.