Why are There So Many Phone Stores?

Downtown meets Digital. What is the future here?

Stock Alamy photo of TMobile, Verizon and AT&T stores in Jackson Heights, Queens, NY in Sept. 2016
Why are there so many Phone Stores? Photo : Alamy, Jackson Heights, NY, Sept. 2016

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I was visiting in my hometown and noticed that many mom-and- pop stores were closing. But, there seemed to be a lot of phone stores springing up, both the big guys and small shops that do phone repairs. I never go to these places and I renew my phone contract like once every three years. So why are there so many of them? Raven, New York.

Dear Raven: Labor Day weekend is a great time to ponder this since traditionally there were  Main Street parades and Labor Day sales. But, in  your hometown, like so many others, things are not the same. It’s not surprising that there’s a phone store now on every corner- along with a pizza joint. Statista estimates there will be 79 billion dollars in U.S. phones sales in 2021 but  ‘only’, 46.4 billion dollars in pizza sales. 

That said, phone stores are a relatively new concept. Before telco deregulation in the nineteen eighties, you had to lease ‘the instrument’ (a phone) and it was delivered by a technician who hard-wired it to the copper cable network. The Western Union backstory: non-Bell equipment could damage the network. 

Grab for Retail Space

With the advancement of fiber optics and wall jacks, consumers could plug in their own phones. But, it was really the growing market for cell service after 2000 that made retail explode. Now, instead of one or two phones per household, each person in the household (kids too!) wanted one.

That was before Internet commerce took off so it began the grab for good retail space. A first-class building  and choice location helped build consumer confidence, show and tell the product, and lock-in contracts. Other companies with brand new technology did the same- think Gateway Computer, Dell, and most recently Microsoft. With at least four major carrier telco choices (AT&T/Verizon/TMobile/Sprint) there was a store for each corner and customer.

The small stores you mention- they grew to serve a different need. Even today they are visited if you go month- to- month,  pay cash, or need repairs. They often resell access from the major carriers at a reduced cost. And, for many customers, the long-term contracts are complex, so it’s an opportunity to explain them better. 

But retailing evolves: In this decade the Gateway and Dell stores have closed. Earlier types of retail outlets, say banks, are downsizing into tiny ATMS,  and automobile dealerships are shrinking in number and size. It’s likely that phone stores will go this way, leaving new options for your hometown!

In Store, For How Long?

That said, about 63% of U.S. “full service” phone sales are still made in store, but if you follow this JD Power report, phone and online sales channels experienced their largest year -over- year growth. People who purchase in the phone store first engage in browsing online, using their old phone of course! By the time they visit the phone store they have shopped their new product and mainly want to hold and feel it. 

So, expect a growing interplay between digital and downtown. Forrester Research reported two years ago (cited in Forbes) that 53% of all purchase decisions are digitally influenced. Now, because the Covid pandemic forced stores (like Verizon, AT&T, etc. to close) consumers experienced the convenience of online purchasing online. Forrester now predicts that online shopping will grow to 27% of overall retail sales by 2023, from around ~18 percent today.

As a result of shopping online, in-store shoppers have different expectations: they want detailed product information, ratings and reviews, and access to the best price. In some markets you now need a phone to enter the store, and in other outlets, like an Amazon store, using the phone brings you the best specials and check out.  Unless the retail phone stores adapt, say to offer more in-person instruction like Apple does, and give choices for the sustainable recycling of trade-in phones, and present a more personalized experience, like Nike, it’s hard to imagine that they will thrive. Happy Labor Day as we figure out this next economy!

Should Bicyclists Bring Smartphones?

A bicycle handlebar with three phones mounted on it.
Should Bicyclists Bring Smartphones Along for the Ride?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I just got a high-end, aluminum frame bicycle and plan to do more local cycling by myself, and also with a club. I am conflicted about whether bicyclists should bring smartphones on the trip. I can easily store the phone in a saddle-bag under the seat, but should I take a phone with me at all? Isn’t the whole point of cycling to get outdoors and be free?  Corbin, San Rafael

Dear Corbin: As people spend more time working from home and on computers, they are discovering, like you, the flip side: the need to turn off and get outside.  A bicycle trek seems like the perfect antidote for these digital times.

I see three reasons why you might want to pack that phone in the saddle-bag, but read on to the end. 

First, you mentioned that you will be cycling with a club. Often club members like to check in on each other’s adventures, and announce their milestones through an app like Strava. If that is you, then you need your phone to record the trip distance, elevation, speed and time. Although that brings an element of competition to the sport, it can also be motivational. Alternatively, you could do a handlebar mount with a wireless receiver that is compatible with apps and smart trainers, so a phone is not the only option. If  this is what makes you cycle better and longer, go for it!

PICTURE THIS!

A second reason to carry the phone is so that you don’t miss that special moment when you yearn for a picture. Occasionally you will discover a picture-perfect “Kodak Moment.”  That image could be as tiny as a lizard sunning on the road, or as panoramic as the sun rising on San Pablo Bay. The point is that you have the camera on your smartphone poised, ready to preserve that memory. 

The final reason the phone might be useful, God forbid, is if you encounter someone in an accident or if you are in one yourself. From my transportation background: in 2018 854 bicyclists were killed in collisions with motor vehicles, and there has been a 38 percent increase since the low point in 2010 and the highest number of fatalities in 30 years. By the way, pedestrian fatalities have increased 46 percent over the same period and people outside of motor vehicles now account for a fifth of all traffic deaths.  So, while carrying the phone might make you feel better prepared, you must keep the device out of sight and out of your hands. 

If you have a connected wrist watch, like the Apple watch  with cellular service, then you would not need to bring the phone. However, that forfeits the picture- taking ability. Moreover, it tips towards distraction. That small screen is constantly updating the time, and depending on the settings,  updates for  calls, texts, and chat. 

TRIP ENDS

Until recently, say 2008, we did not have wireless smartphones that accompanied us on  outdoor trips. I am not counting the Blackberry, which emerged circa 2000, because it was essentially a tool for business email, not recreational purposes. Until the last decade, bikers and hikers taking short day treks managed to ramble without being tethered to a phone. We tend to overestimate our personal chances of encountering an emergency, and underestimate that others are nearby to help.  And, we have forgotten that a sketch book and diary are alternatives to the photo image, even if we cannot post it on social media.

But one final note: In my hometown bikers seem to pack their phones out-of-sight but pull them out as soon as they finish their ride. They culminate their hilly up and down trip by congregating at a foody hangout for a deserved snack and iced drink. And, how do they pay? With Google Pay or Apple Wallet, naturally.

Vaccination Record on Phone?

“Don’t Leave Home Without It?”…..does that apply to the vaccination card?

Three screenshots from a smartphone showing how to use NY state's Excelsior Vaccine Record for Phones.
Should we put a vaccine record on the phone? Credit: verywellhealth.com

Dear Ms. Smartphone:  We are planning Fall travel to the East Coast and can’t decide whether to put our vaccination record on the phone. Unlike a piece of paper that everyone can read, will select people know my family’s details? Will we need to have cellular service or wifi  to show proof?  And, what if the technology does not work in places we go?  Perhaps I am overthinking this. Hector, Corte Madera

Dear Hector:

There are lots of things we store on our phones these days when we travel: a pass like the ‘Clipper Card’ for the bus or train, our plane ticket, hotel keys, and, of course, the holiday photos. So, should we add the proof that we got a Covid vaccine to the smartphone mix?  I am going to give you the high tech solution first and then the low tech one. 

If you already store your airplane tickets on a digital wallet, you will find the vaccine information, aka the vaccine passport, to be similar. In one case, it’s the airline and the TSA that verify your information. Now it’s a  health authority or their proxy. Is that proxy secure? In an earlier Dearsmartphone I weighed the issues and note a date breach at TSA from a trusted third party.

But, that said, there has been a literal race to develop these vaccine passports, alongside the race to develop the vaccine itself. China and Israel were the first countries to implement digital passports. Israel now seem to be ramping up to reinstate a Green Pass (think ‘green’ traffic light). In the U.S., there are multiple data credential centers springing up and no one knows if they will be able to keep your health information safe, secure, and locked down.

HIGH TECH-QR:

If your upcoming trip takes you to New York, there is a first-mover experiment taking place there. The former Governor Cuomo (remember him), IBM, and the department of Public Health have teamed up to offer an ‘ Excelsior Pass’.  People vaccinated in NY have an option to upload basic information like the date they got the Covid vaccines, their birth date, zip code, and phone number. Next they receive a QR code for their phones. When they need to show proof, say at Yankee Stadium, they flash  a picture ID, alongside the QR code on their phones. A scanner to a distributed network verifies that the QR code is valid. The QR codes have to be renewed after six or nine months as the protection from the vaccination is believed to weaken.

But, to confuse matters further, the City of New York is developing a brand new app, also with IBM, so that visitors who live outside the state, like you, can show their credentials. Meanwhile, Walgreen, Sam’s Club, and others have issued their own proprietary apps for uploading digital  health data. It sounds like the NYC/IBM collaboration has more data protections than average but you must still agree to trust their encryption method based on blockchain technology.

LOW TECH-SCAN:

But if you want the low-tech solution before you travel, then either scan, or take pictures of the vaccine cards for your entire family and save them to your phone. Then, if you forget to take the cards, or worse, lose them, you will have a record. It’s not a huge advancement over the first vaccine record that public health officials instituted, in 1884! But it most certainly works. The downside is that people might fake them, making public exposure to the virus more likely. That said, digital records can be faked too, but with a higher level of effort. 

As those under age 12 wait for a vaccine, and other groups question whether they need it at all, those who are vaccinated ask whether it is safe to put the information on our phones.  New issues for new times. Perhaps that is why it was initially called the ‘Novel‘ Corona virus. Safe travels.