Insights from a Mystery Shopping Trip (Part 2)

Foldables Are Hard to Retail

To start the year, I thought it’d be interesting to visit some stores retailing mobile phones to assess current trends and challenges. A morning at the Westfield shopping mall in West London saw me and my colleague Vaishali noting a couple of things:

  • Dependence on Apple and Samsung is higher than ever
  • Retailing foldable devices is challenging

I covered the dominance of Apple and Samsung and the wider challenges of retailing mobile phones in yesterday’s blog post. Today I’m taking a look at the challenges of selling foldable devices in a retail setting.

A Folding Problem

Foldable smartphones pose a tricky challenge for manufacturers and retailers. They’re difficult to display securely and getting people to interact with them is problematic. This is often down to a fear of interacting with unfamiliar technology, combined with concerns that the devices are very different to their current smartphone.

In the relatively secure retail environment of Samsung’s London flagship store in King’s Cross, customers are free to pick up the phones, open and shut them and get a full feel of what the devices can offer. However, even with that freedom, Samsung has had to work hard to overcome people’s reticence. Samsung’s answer came with its £500K Selfie campaign in the second half of 2023. This gave consumers a chance to become a “selfie-made half-millionaire” by using one of Samsung’s foldable phones in a retail store to take a selfie. It saw interactions with devices go up over 10% year-on-year — an impressive achievement.

But at Westfield, it immediately became clear that frequent thefts have compelled retailers to take dramatic steps to secure the foldable smartphones on display. And this is where the problems start.

Passing from one shop to another I was shocked to see how the security fixings severely limited the ability of a customer to interact with a folding phone.

Here are a few examples.

At EE, the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip5 was displayed fully open with all sides secured. At a glance, this meant it looked like yet another monobloc smartphone. Without being able to pick the device up, or at least open and close the screen, it was hard for anyone to appreciate any of the benefits of a foldable phone. To make matters worse, it wasn’t even charged, although this appeared to be a rare oversight rather than a permanent state of affairs.

In Currys, the Samsung Z Fold5 had been stolen, underlining the importance of securing these devices effectively, but the Z Flip5 remained in place. Currys has hit upon a clever way to display the device. A metal plate behind the top half meant the phone wouldn’t fully open, so it was displayed with a slight tilt in the screen, making it immediately obvious that the device could be folded. However, the brackets securing the phone prevented it from fully closing, which meant the external display didn’t activate (see below). This is unfortunate, as the external display is arguably one of the key selling points of the Galaxy Z Flip5.

We found a variant on this theme at the O2 Store. A Samsung Galaxy Z Fold5 was on display, again with a frame that held the device open but slightly folded. However, the design meant that when you closed the device you only got to see the rear of the phone and its camera array, and it was impossible to see the front display on the face of the product. Once again, a key feature of the device was hidden from view.

Interestingly, the Google Pixel Fold on display in the O2 store seemed to overcome the problem of showing off the external display. It too was secured with the phone partially closed to give a visual cue that it can fold, but closing the phone activated the external display. It’s hard to tell whether this is by design or purely because the sensor in the Pixel Fold is more tolerant and activates the external display before the device is fully closed, but without a doubt it dramatically improves the customer experience. It could be that Samsung needs to develop a “retail build” of the software on its products that allows the external screen to activate even when the device isn’t fully closed.

With more foldable devices set to arrive in 2024, the designers of point-of-sale fixings for mobile devices will have to continue to evolve their solutions. I have huge sympathy for them. Foldables are some of the most premium smartphones on display, making them a magnet for theft, so the fixings need to be extremely robust. However, as Samsung has shown in its flagship store, improving the interaction with its products helps customers fully understand the benefits a folding phone can offer, and this in turn helps to boost sales.