Commercial Street, in central Leeds, is typical of roads in many of the UK’s larger towns and cities. Walk its relatively modest length – it will take no more than about two minutes – and you pass no fewer than six mobile phone shops.
There’s the 3 store, tick, here’s the Vodafone branch, tick, and – oh, look – Phones 4 U, tick, tick, tick.
And, just around the corner, in case you missed it, is an old-style Carphone Warehouse outlet. Few of the various mobile phone stores on Commercial Street boast the latest formats, but if you need someone to sell you a handset, you’re not going to be disappointed. Now, think about what you’ve just seen: a street in the middle of one of the UK’s major cities, filled with mobile phone shops and little else.
OK, this may be a mild exaggeration, but it would certainly not be overstating the case to say that, in Commercial Street, mobile phone shops make up the overwhelmingly dominant retail offering. None of which would matter much were it not for the fact that, in spite of the various colour differences that mark out the individual brands, there is a point at which they all seem to merge into one.
With the exceptions of Carphone and Phones 4 U, these shops are network-owned and all of them have called in leading design consultancies to make them stand out from their competitors. The trouble is, they are the same in terms of the features on offer. Each will have a pay-as-you-go zone, a contract customer area and, somewhere towards the back of the shop, there may be a “business lounge”, signalled by a bit of carpet and some faux-leather or suede seating. Add a few graphics, a wall of accessories and bosh, it’s job done.
Given that so much effort has been expended on creating the mobile phone store formats seen in Leeds, shoppers might be forgiven for expecting more. There is no sense of adventure and certainly, any kind of experience is thin on the ground.
There is, of course, a radical alternative and Nokia has provided it in its£4 million flagship on Regent Street. The problem is that this level of expenditure is not what store roll-out is about;£100,000 might be a more reasonable figure for a typical phone store.
Unless there is a sea-change, we seem destined to continue to have streets filled with lacklustre examples of store design teams’ art. Leeds has an awful lot of good retailing, particularly in the designer stores crammed into its Victorian arcades. But the creeping cancer of sameness is nowhere better exemplified than on nearby Commercial Street. Who needs differentiation? Not mobile phone retailers, apparently.