Mobile specialists feel the pinch of aggressive network growth
Network-owned mobile phone stores such as Vodafone, Orange and O2 have for the first time overtaken traditional specialists such as Carphone Warehouse and Phones 4U in sales of contract handsets.

Latest figures from TNS TelecomTrak show that the network operators' stores market share stood at 37.3 per cent in the 52 weeks to August 14, compared with 36.3 per cent last year. In comparison, the specialists' market share dipped from 41.1 per cent 12 months ago to 37 per cent.

However, the gap between the network stores and specialists could widen, as the networks embark on aggressive retail expansion. Hutchison Whampoa-owned 3 plans to build a nationwide chain of stores, while O2 is to open at least 70 shops in the coming months, taking it to almost 350 outlets. It also plans to build a franchise store network.

Although Carphone Warehouse and Phones 4U are not standing still, TNS believes that they will have to up their game in-store to compete with the network stores.

TNS TelecomTrak consumer insight director Paul Moore said: 'The networks have a better idea about customer value, because they have access to all the billing detail of their customer base. They can talk to their customers through billing and give them opportunities to upgrade. Mobile phone specialists need to tighten their offerings and be able to tailor packages to customers in the way that network stores are.'

Some 84.9 per cent of the population own a mobile phone, with the number of those on a contract up 4.3 per cent year on year. In the past 12 months, Dixons-owned The Link has gone from the number one player in pre-pay handset sales to number four.

The Link's share has fallen from 10.9 per cent to 7.9 per cent and now sits behind Carphone Warehouse (12.5 per cent), Argos (8.6 per cent) and Phones 4U (8 per cent).

The Link has been finding the going particularly tough. Like-for-like sales fell 28 per cent at the business in the 16 weeks to August 20.