Mary Portas with donated clothes

Mary Portas gives high street mobile phone retailers an education. Image by Downing Street via Flickr

Queen of retail Mary Portas graced our screens once again this week, turning her Secret Shopper steely gaze on the state of customer service in high street mobile shops.

An industry once derided for being filled with commission-hungry wide boys, only eager to sell the shiniest new mobiles on the most expensive contracts, I was hopeful that this show would finally showcase how far the phone shop had come.

I was wrong.

Somewhat predictably, none of the major mobile retailers or networks were willing to have the stylish shopping savant tearing their stores apart on national TV, leaving independent retailer Fonehouse the only brave soul to invite Mary in.

Fonehouse CEO Clive Bayley (despite admitting to getting into the mobile phone business ‘by mistake’) seemed to be genuinely willing to change, wanting the process of buying a mobile to be a ‘pleasurable experience’ across their 50-odd stores, and trying to shake the image of being high street scammers.

As Mary’s first contact into the world of mobiles , ‘H’ – the impeccably-groomed, Lamborghini-driving, gym-obsessed manager of Fonehouse’s top branch – arrived, my heart sank.

The embodiment of the mobile seller stereotype – jargon-filled, pushy and arrogant – H was everything wrong with today’s phone shop buying experience.

In the next 40-odd minutes, Mary put on display the hard selling of unsuitable mobile deals, the rude and uninformed staff and the simple lack of catering to shoppers’ needs, exactly the kind of customer service that thousands have had to put up with in phone retailers up and down the land.

Mary’s valiant efforts to change the phone shop’s layout into a more friendly and approachable place, as well as the selling mentality of those that worked there, fell on deaf ears as H was unwilling to bring his Waltham Cross store into the 21st century.

This is exactly the reason that we have seen shoppers go online in their droves to buy mobile phones. Demographics and tastes have shifted and more people than ever are interested in joining the smartphone brigade, all the while our high streets have remained in the Dark Ages.

Armed with the knowledge of which new mobile phone floats their boat, it is easy for savvy shoppers to check out exhaustive reviews on sites like CNET and Techradar, compare the latest offers that suit their actual usage with sites like Omio and uSwitch Mobiles having literally millions of deals, and have a new handset on their doorstep in less than 24 hours.

You would think that being in an industry focused on cutting-edge technology and seeing the roaring success of progressive, modern shopping experiences like the unique Apple stores, would mean these retailers would devote a little more time to providing the customer service that is so sorely lacking.

The counter-argument from these franchise owners was one of money, arguing that it is not cost effective to refit an entire shop with loads of pretty demonstration handsets (a constant thievery magnet), plush seating areas and attentive staff.

A valid point, but perhaps selling the Lamborghini and investing in the business might have been a step in the right direction?

As long as the major high street retailers continue to offer such a lackluster shopping experience, we will continue to see consumers rely more on the web to purchase items cheaply, conveniently and without the stress associated with pounding the pavement on a Saturday.

No-one could have predicted that a retailer specializing in ripping off celebrity fashion choices could dominate the clothing industry both on and offline in just a few short years, but As Seen On Screen (now more familiarly known as ASOS.com) has shown that giving consumers the freedom of choice to navigate the best of this season’s wares, browsing at their own pace can reap massive dividends.

As Mary’s show ended with a bunch of irate shoppers invading a Phones4U on Oxford Street, lambasting staff with stats about unused minutes and money wasted by consumers, it made for a strong final image that was proof that little had changed by the closing credits.

It also left me thinking that the big mobile phone buying revolution may already be here, but with consumers sidestepping the minefield of the high street altogether and accepting the less challenging mission of doing their shopping online.

Where else can you buy a BlackBerry in your pyjamas with a cup of tea and without a side order of technobabble?

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