iQmetrix’s 2021 Trends in Telecom Retail Report Paints a Picture of Sector Transformation

There’s only one group of people who know telecom retail better than iQmetrix, and that’s all the industry professionals working in telecom retail operations every day.

So, for iQmetrix’s inaugural Trends in Telecom Retail Survey, we reached out to telecom retail professionals across the US and Canada to glean insights into the state of the sector—both today’s trends, and predictions for what’s to come.

The results were extremely insightful. We learned that the telecom retailer of today is agile and responsive; robust and optimistic; innovative and adaptable. We discovered that the coronavirus pandemic radically altered the retail landscape—temporarily for the worse, perhaps, but arguably for the better in the long term.

More than anything else, our survey responses revealed that the future of telecom retail is in meeting the customer where they are. Retail operators are investing in innovative ways to sell anywhere, so that their customers can buy anywhere. In-store, online, via mobile, via social, via search, at big-box kiosks, at pop-up stores, and anywhere else.

The results also showed a highly bullish attitude among telecom retailers—perhaps surprisingly so, given the recent pandemic. Although continued economic uncertainty remains top of mind for most respondents, more than two-thirds are expecting to see increased retail revenues over the coming three years.

Stacy Hamer, Vice President of Client Experiences at iQmetrix, said, “Overall, these responses make up a very optimistic report—and an outlook that predicts huge change, not a continuation of the status quo. It shows that authorized retailers and carriers are going to have to align with each other, invest in new product sales, and adopt new retail channels. It paints a transformational picture.”

Here are some key highlights from each of the report’s five sections.

An Optimistic Outlook

Telecom retail operators have revealed themselves to be a bullish group. Despite competition in the sector being cited as notably higher than three years ago, more than two-thirds are expecting to see increased retail revenues over the coming three years. And that proportion jumps among smaller authorized dealers (1-19 locations), nearly 80% of whom are optimistic that revenues are rising.

Why? Presumably because most seem to expect that there will be enough sales to go round—both in the wireless device market and, particularly, in the smart/IoT-connected device market. More than 83% predict an increase in smart device sales, with 50% forecasting a dramatic rise, in the next three years.

Paul Stemick, Vice President of Operations at TEAM Wireless, a mid-market Verizon authorized retailer, told iQmetrix, “I think the smart device trend is increasing, especially with 5G coming in. I think that will change everything in telecommunications. The 5G ultra-wide band is so fast… smart home devices will become much more normalized in our everyday lives.”

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A Symbiotic Relationship

For all the challenges that telecom carriers and authorized retailers face in terms of streamlining system and processes, and much more besides, their relationships largely remain strong. In fact, 88.8% of respondents say they have a good carrier-retailer relationship, with nearly half of those describing it as excellent.

Stacy Hamer, Vice President of Client Experiences at iQmetrix, said, “This is great news. It shows carriers are caring about their dealers. No carrier is caring about their corporate stores—they’re largely closing corporate locations, and they’re putting all of their investment into the dealer channel. I think that is a great sign.”

What’s more, carriers and authorized retailers expect their relationship to go from strength to strength in the future, with the highest proportion of respondents (37.9%) saying their relationship will be “much better” in three years’ time compared with today.

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Morphing Brick and Mortar

Many of the industry professionals surveyed come from a background of physical retail outlets, but there’s no doubt that a wireless store is no longer just a physical store selling devices. Of all the possible roles of the brick-and-mortar store over the next three years, the overarching feeling that these stores will act “As an essential component of continued omnichannel retail strategies.” Almost 39% of all respondents felt this way about physical retail; this proportion jumped to nearly 47% when analyzing responses from smaller authorized retailers.

The next most highly chosen response was that retailers predicted “a return to pre-pandemic consumer practices and traffic levels”. This was selected by 28.83% of respondents—possibly due to the large proportion of US respondents, who have seen high levels of sales activity through the pandemic.

“They might be wondering if that’s sustainable, and think it will even out after the pandemic,” suggested Hamer. “The same is not true for our Canadian clients, who have suffered losses through the pandemic and are having to adopt omnichannel strategies to get them back up to pre-pandemic sales levels.”

TTR retail store screenshot

Omnichannel is Essential

When it comes to implementing omnichannel strategies, the message is clear: get on board, or be left behind. For over 80% of respondents, omnichannel strategies are important to their telecom retail operations, with more than half of all respondents choosing “extremely important.”

The coronavirus pandemic was, of course, a major shot in the arm for omnichannel strategies, more than two-thirds saying that the pandemic accelerated plans for implementation, and nearly half of those describing the acceleration as “rapid.”

“Wireless retailers have been historically slow to adopt new technologies, so I was impressed with how rapidly they pivoted,” said Hamer.

What seems most important to telecom retail strategy is creating that effortless customer experience to ensure they can access the product they want, when and where they want. Store-to-store transfers of product inventory is the most commonly implemented omnichannel strategy, with 83.5% of respondents already doing this or planning to soon, followed by BOPIS/ROPIS (buy/reserve online, pick up in-store). Online appointment scheduling eked just ahead of contactless payments and curbside pickup, but all these strategies are already or soon to be put in place by more than three-quarters of retailers surveyed.

TTR omnichannel screenshot

Buy Anywhere and Everywhere

It is inarguable that multi-channel purchasing strategies are essential to every retail vertical, and telecom is no exception. As sophisticated retailers get their omnichannel flows established, they are freed up to explore new ways to sell anywhere, so that their customers can buy anywhere.

When asked about the role of e-commerce over the next five years, respondents most often predicted a growth in BOPIS/ROPIS, in e-commerce purchasing in general, and in AI/machine learning and data analytics to improve customer personalization.

“All the big players are investing in these strategies,” said Hamer, “so it’s no surprise to see these at the top.”

When it comes to machine learning, Tajesh Patel, owner of TDP Wireless, a 12-location Verizon authorized retailer in Delaware, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, explained this was crucial. He said, “The more data points you gather, the more you can predict customer behaviors. Already, big retailers are able to recognize what you like and automatically put in front of you what you’re likely to buy. This could be taken even further in future, with brands potentially mailing you the product they think you want, and you simply return it for free if you don’t want it.”

And when asked for some blue-sky thinking in terms of likely telecom purchasing channels in the next five years, the top answer selected by a massive 88% of respondents (as either very likely or somewhat likely) is a “greater focus on customer loyalty, subscription programs, and rewards programs to upsell and increase consumer spend.”

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Check out the full results, analysis, and commentary by downloading the 2021 Trends in Telecom Retail report PDF—no form filling required.

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