Carphone Warehouse’s latest Wireless World format has a strong focus on customer interaction. John Ryan goes to Exeter for a tour

Reasons for going into a shop that sells mobile phones must be increasingly thin on the ground. Almost everyone has several handsets secreted away in drawers at home and each new phone contract is an excuse for the networks to shower users with ever more complex devices. Given that most of this can be done online, why bother with bricks-and-mortar stores?

That, of course, is just one line of thinking, because just as mobiles evolve, so do the environments from which they, and a lot of other gizmos, are now sold. It’s a bit like asking why Carphone Warehouse is so-called. The notion of a phone being exclusively for use in a four-wheeled vehicle is now so outmoded that many of the retailer’s younger shoppers have no firm grasp of what a carphone actually is – or rather, was.

Nevertheless, in spite of the name – which a spokesman confirms is changing no time soon – and in spite of the fact that it’s a long time since a carphone in any sense of the word’s original meaning graced this retailer’s shelves, the stores continue to change.

The latest example of the new look that Carphone Warehouse is embracing can be found in Exeter. This is, essentially, a store that stocks phones from a variety of manufacturers, but could more accurately be described as a “The Communications Warehouse”, by dint of the plethora of other technology products that are on offer. Catchy, huh? Well, perhaps that’s why Carphone Warehouse has never chosen to rename a brand that is as familiar as Pepsi and which, like that brand, commands instant recognition.

Ringing in the changes

The Exeter store looks different from what Carphone Warehouse devotees will be used to, however. Located as part of the Princesshay shopping centre – an open mall that welcomed its first shoppers in September 2007 – this glass-fronted shop may not have ditched the brand name, but the time-honoured royal blue colour formerly used for the logo has gone. In its place is a more subtle turquoise.

The colour is employed on a goalpost-style frame set back from the store’s frontage, which uses edge-to-edge, full-length glass slabs to allow uninterrupted views into the interior. The logo itself stands proud of this frame, lending the store’s exterior a fresher and less gaudy feel than is the case in the great majority of the retailer’s other stores.

Step inside the modest entrance and while the name above the door may involve the word phone, the first thing the shopper will see is laptops. There are 24 different models in this shop – store manager David Harris-Heffer says that in a normal Carphone Warehouse branch there would be just three. He adds that, at 1,400 sq ft, the store is above the minimum size required for a Carphone Warehouse Wireless World store – there being a limit to the footprint that will allow for the various elements housed in this format room to breathe.

Head of store design and visual merchandising Paul Lester says that for the Wireless World to function as a format, it requires stores to be above 1,290 sq ft, putting the format into the medium to larger end of the Carphone Warehouse store size. The retailer opened a flurry of first-generation Wireless World stores at the end of last year in locations such as Romford, Westfield and
Bristol’s Cribbs Causeway.

However, since that time the store design, created by the in-house team working with consultants Brindley Novak and i-am associates, has been modified and Lester says that about 40 branches will be opened or converted into Wireless Worlds before the end of this year.

Back to the laptops, however. These are displayed on a light-wood table formed by adding two small tables at an angle to the end of the long table that extends towards the store’s entrance. Harris-Heffer says that these have been christened “helipads” internally and looked at from above you can see why.

Unlike a lot of stores that sell technology of whatever kind, there is not the rush to fill the space underneath the tables with boxed stock in an effort to create a forward reserve. Harris-Heffer says that this is indicative of the underlying ethos of this store. “In the old phone shops, there was a tendency to walk in, have a look at a plastic pretend phone, get no help and then walk out,” he says, adding: “In this store, everything’s online and we ask people to come in and have a play.”

That said, there are strongly promotional features, not least of which are the “hero” stands. These are light-grey bolt-on stands positioned at the front of each of the helipad displays and, as the name suggests, are used to highlight a particular product. An Acer laptop occupies the pole position hero stand at the front of the shop at the moment and its location does much to show how Carphone Warehouse’s rivals in Exeter are more likely to be drawn from among the ranks of PC World and Currys than sector competitors such as T-Mobile.

There are, in fact, three helipads running the length of the centre floor. Notebooks – devices somewhere between a handheld and a laptop – follow the laptop table and right at the back, and just in front of the “Geek Squad” counter, there is a smart phone and portable gaming display.

All of which sounds like a lot, but as with the spaces under the tables, Lester and his team have worked hard to create a sense of space. This is not a store where shoppers will feel crowded by the “more is more” philosophy that informs other technology retailers. It also points towards the high levels of service required to make this kind of shop work and Harris-Heffer says that he has recruited gaming, computer and notebook specialists to ensure that queries can be meaningfully dealt with. 

To the left of the helipads, running from front to back, are a sales counter, a perimeter panel display of “connected technology”, for which read laptop bags and accessories, broadband and devices that do novel things with TVs. Beyond this and set into a recessed area at the back of the store, there are the consultation tables and benches, fashioned from the same light-wood colour as the helipads. These tables are busy and it is obvious that on a sunny day in Exeter this store has become something of a destination since opening in its present form on June 9.

There are, of course, relatively simple handsets on offer on a pay-as-you-go or contract basis and these fill much of the store’s right-hand perimeter wall, alongside a live Wii gaming console. 

Finally, it is worth noting the back wall, ceiling and floor. The back wall is one long graphic that uses the same turquoise background as is employed along the storefront. Lester says that the aim is to bring the back and front of the shop closer together. The floor is cream-coloured, adding to the light feel of this interior, and overhead plain wood rafts, in the shape of crosses, are used to diffuse the light that falls on the helipads.

Is this the future for Carphone Warehouse then? It is certainly one possible future. Harris-Heffer says that footfall in the store on Sunday, June 28 was 295, up from 120 people four weeks earlier. Perhaps this has much to do with the feeling that entering this shop is not a matter of running the gauntlet of over-eager phone salesmen. Advice is on hand, but on the shopper’s terms. All in all, a considerable advance on the sector norm.

Carphone Warehouse, Exeter

Store size 1,400 sq ft

Location Princesshay shopping mall

Design in-house team and Brindley Novak; i-am associates for customer journey work

Principal design features helipad mid-floor fixturing; new exterior and interior colour palette; light-wood coloured ceiling rafts