May has been a month of recovery from the nadir of sales amid the pandemic. At the end of March, Wave7 Research reported that 45% of postpaid carrier stores were open, but this number rose to an estimated 83% in mid-May. Only 73% of stores of the top three prepaid brands – Metro by T-Mobile, Boost Mobile and Cricket Wireless – were open in early April, but the Wave7 Research mid-May estimate was that 96% of prepaid stores were open.
Our research showed that Sprint went from “worst to first,” as it had the smallest percentage of stores open in late March, but there was a major wave of stores reopening in mid-May, and Sprint now has the highest percentage of stores open. T-Mobile opened doors strongly also.
Most carrier stores have shorter hours – with many now closed on Sundays – although most Sprint stores now have normal hours. Also, carrier stores are taking the same safety measures as other stores, such as social distancing, limiting the number of customers and surface cleaning.
Nearly half of Apple’s U.S. stores – 130 out of a total of 271 – will be open as of next week, the International Business Times is reporting. All Best Buy stores were closed, but hundreds now allow customers with appointments to visit, amid a continuing emphasis on curbside pickup. Hours are back to normal at Costco, although masks are required.
For safety, carriers have been asking customers to do business whenever possible online, via apps, and via curbside pickup. But I think that most transactions in the future will continue to be in stores, given how deeply involved most people are with their smartphones. Also, customers need to see devices firsthand and they need accessories, handset insurance, and maybe a bundled tablet. However, the percentage of customers comfortable with online and app transactions certainly will rise.
The December edition of our Wave7 Door Report showed that the number of stores for nearly all top postpaid and prepaid carriers – aside from AT&T and Cricket, where there was growth – was falling for all carriers even before the pandemic. Now, more stores are likely to be seen as unprofitable and will be shuttered.
I recently tweeted a picture of a T-Mobile dealer store that closed for the pandemic. In mid-May, the store was cleared out and signage states that the store has closed permanently. A Sprint dealer store at a major intersection 200 yards away, however, reopened in mid-May and is serving customers. T-Mobile stores and Sprint stores often are located in close proximity to each other and many stores in these situations are likely to close.
There will be changes at national retail. Already, Verizon has halted postpaid sales at Target and at Sam’s Club. T-Mobile and Sprint have long had different views about national retail. T-Mobile generally avoids national retail, aside from sales at some Costco stores and minor SIM sales at Best Buy. Sprint is all in, with an aggressive focus on Walmart and a full presence at Best Buy and Sam’s Club, as well as some Costco stores. Whatever the New T-Mobile chooses to do, there will be big changes.
With more people telecommuting, there has been increased demand for wireline and wireless broadband to the home. Demand for hotspots has surged, and some carriers are out of stock of some hotspot models. This is partly due to the flexibility of mobile internet, as telecommuters need to connect from many places, not just from home. Also, business connectivity from home for many is now seen as mission critical, so some connections will be sold for redundancy.
Overall, May brought good news. Most stores are open, and sales are up versus April. However, the number of stores will take a hit and more online transactions will occur, amid significant changes at national retail.
Jeff Moore is Principal of Wave 7 Research, a wireless research firm that covers U.S. postpaid, prepaid, and smartphone competition. Jeff has 25 years of telecom industry experience, including 13 years of competitive intelligence work for Sprint. Follow him on Twitter @wave7jeff.
Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceWireless.