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A blight on the urban landscape

Yesterday, sitting at a coffeehouse in the George Street Arcade, Stacy and I pored over a map, figuring out where to go. Next to us, a man overheard us, and offered some locals advice. He mentioned Grafton Street, and said that it has been in decline because of all the mobile phone shops.

It reminded me of something I heard a couple years ago, when visiting Austin. I was drinking coffee (a leitmotif!) at Jo’s on South Congress, and ran into a friend I knew from San Francisco. We talked about how South Congress had been evolving, and she pointed at the (at the time) new Amy’s Ice Cream across the street. She mentioned how a cell phone store had been planning to move in, but that the owner of the Hotel San Jose put a stop to it (somehow, I forget how) and got Amy’s to move in, because she (the owner of the hotel) believed that cell phone stores are a blight.

And they are. No one likes having to go to a mobile phone store (except maybe, MAYBE, teenagers), but they are like kudzu on the global retail landscape. This is a bizarre phenomenon (do they really earn enough money to pay their rents?) and I’d love to better understand the economics of it.


  1. May one smoke in a Dublin coffeehouse, or at least on a patio? In certain drab California cities, tobacco use – and sociability – has been largely replaced by cell phone chatter and laptop absorption in such venues.

  2. Smoking has been banned indoors at all establishments. I don’t know about patios… There are some lovely patio spots around town. Dublin isn’t so much of a coffeehouse city …

  3. Though I do question the assumption that polluting another’s air is not somehow blighting…

  4. I’m confident that they’ll become unviable as their margins get squeezed by increasing rent and competition from online stores.

    City centre streets in the UK used to be dotted with travel agencies selling package holidays. Not many of those around now but the travel e-commerce industry is booming (or has boomed).

  5. Hey Peter,
    I live in Dublin, I totally agree that Grafton St is littered with nameless newsagents and stores selling heaps of mobile phones. Meaningless shops basically, of interest to no one.

    It’s pretty similar to what I’ve seen on the “shopping streets” in most capitals, all the big brands tend to destroy them with boilerplate branding.

  6. Mobile phone stores are actually an interesting trend (in the UK at least) as they are partially a response to the limitations of online and remote selling and support. Mobile stores provide consumers with an opportunity to get authoratitive advice, review/renew contracts, pay bills, get accessories in one visit and without the frustrations associated with automatic systems. Most operator branded stores have access to account information via internal systems and have direct dial numbers to CSRs, what’s more the store guys know the right questions to ask and the right language to be effective.

    These activities are ones that have to be taken with the operator, unlike an electronics retailer where you can shop around easier online there’s no benefit in ‘shopping around’ once your in a contract. All adjustments have to take place within the operator framework and it’s generally more pleasant for individuals to deal with ‘real people’ than computers, IVRs or call centre workers.

    All in all the stores provide a valuable human interface for the mobile operators and are a big part of what impacts their customer satisfaction surveys. Hence the growth in stores at a time when the market is saturated, the operators are not competing on price as much as customer service and a big part of that is having real people available to your customers.

  7. In your second-thought comment, Peterme, you are questioning your own assumption. A rhetorical stumble in the course of a noble PC attack on smokers. For this I had to send you to college?

    And you cause me to wonder what Dubliners think of the proliferation of American and German tourists with their cell phones, cameras and throw away food packaging polluting their histroric regions.

    Blight, now…that’s something else, again.

  8. Personally, unless i’m buying a phone i’ve had before or one i’ve extensively played with (a friend’s perhaps) or something unique (iPhone) i’d never buy a phone without actually handling it – so I think the brick & mortar cell phone stores do add some value.

  9. The same thing is happening with bank branches here in New York, but I think they might be less of a blight than cell phone franchises.

    Also, your dad is hysterical.

  10. For what it’s worth, in Dublin you can smoke on patios, just not indoors. And, Dubliners are as guilty of such detritus (cell phones, cameras, trash) as any others here!

  11. Well — the cell phone store in our office building went out of business (or lost their lease?- dunno) so one less cell phone store in downtown SF. Trend?

  12. Puts me in mind of a calculation I’d heard one time, regarding mall viability/lifecycle.. something about tracking a mall’s vitality according to the percentage of storefronts occupied by shoe-stores… really wish I still had that reference.

    Anyhoo… I, too, love how your Dad hangs out here to ‘take the piss outta ya’ from time to time. (Dad’s’re good for that, aren’t they.)

  13. How interesting. I get so frustrated with banks taking up storefronts in dense neighborhoods and deadening the streetscape. Evan Rose mentions this happening in New York; it’s happening here in Cambridge MA too. “Blight” is an apt word for both mobile phone stores and banks.

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