Alcatel looks to the retail floor as it challenges Apple, Samsung

BARCELONA, Spain -- Alcatel Onetouch shed its surname earlier this week (now it's just Alcatel) in a rebranding move that's part of a larger effort to separate itself from lesser-known smartphone vendors in the U.S. and close the gap with Apple and Samsung, which dominate the high end of the American market.

And the company hopes to lure staffers in retail stores to join it.

A subsidiary of China's TCL Communication, Alcatel used the Mobile World Congress stage here this week to trot out the latest versions of its flagship Idol line. Both new devices offer some impressive specs for the price, underscoring Alcatel's strategy of beating the bigger players on price without sacrificing too much power or functionality. The smaller Idol 4 features a 5.2-inch display, a 13-megapixel camera and is powered by the Snapdragon 617 processor. Its bigger brother, the Idol 4S, packs the more powerful Snapdragon 652 and includes a 5.5-inch AMOLED display.

Alcatel has yet to announce U.S. pricing for the phones, but they will hit European markets at roughly $310 for the Idol 4 and $500 for the 4S. The company is looking to punch above its weight, clearly, but it will need some help if it's going to score against the heavyweights. And that's where retail staffers come in.

"We have to win the hearts and the minds of the salespeople," said Jon Maron, Alcatel's vice president of marketing and communications for North America, here on the sidelines of MWC this week. While many Android handset vendors strive to put branded skins on Google's OS, Alcatel chooses to offer a largely stock version of the platform. The company hopes the simplified user interface coupled with impressive specs will prove as compelling to retail staffers as it will to consumers. And in the coming months it will diversify its portfolio with devices running Windows 10.

"How are you going to help the sales people make more money" on commissions? he asked. "If your product is crap, it doesn't really matter."

But Alcatel isn't alone in trying to elbow in to the high end of the mid-range of the U.S. market -- or, depending on your perspective, the bottom tier of the high-end market. That segment may have gone relatively untapped in the past few years as Samsung and Apple battle with premium devices and a slew of manufacturers fight over budget-conscious consumers.

But the segment may also become a major battleground over the next year. OnePlus, a vendor out of China, recently said it plans to bring its flagship OnePlus 3 to U.S. shores in the next few months, and Xiaomi plans to bring its smartphone muscle to America by the end of 2017. All three companies hope to attract consumers by packaging quality specs in handsets that are more affordable than gadgets like the iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S7.

Alcatel wasn't even a top-ten smartphone vendor in North America as recently as 2013, but recent IDC data indicates it's taken over the No. 4 spot, edging out ZTE with a 6.7 percent share. So Alcatel knows that its recent ascent into the top five means it no longer can sneak up on its competitors. And it can't afford big-budget ad campaigns, which is why it's taking a more ground-level approach on the retail floor.

"We now have a target on our back," Maron said. "But we don't have millions of dollars to spend on marketing."

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