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UK telcos to welcome back the masses as the high street reopens

All four of the UK’s mobile network operators (MNOs) will reopen a portion of their retail footprint soon, but fibre broadband player Virgin Media will remain closed permanently.

While the country holds its breath in the hope the worst of the coronavirus pandemic is in the past, the battered and bruised high street reopens. Telecoms is seemingly one of the few industries to navigate the last few months without material damage to operations, but reopening retail footprints is a welcome sign of some semblance of normality.

UK telecoms presence on the high street
Telco Number of stores Status
BT/EE 650 All stores to be reopened as Government guidelines permit. Phased reopening plan to begin on 15/6/2020
Vodafone 412 65 stores open on 15/6/2020, plans to open another 300 in coming weeks. All to reopen, but central London to remain closed for the moment
Three 320 250 stores will be reopened on 15/6/2020. Stores in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will open at a later date
O2 450 Some stores in England will be reopened on 15/6/2020, though no details on how many. Stores in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will remain closed for the time being
Virgin Media 53 All stores will remain permanently closed with the team prioritising online sales

What is worth noting is that while the doors will be opened operations have of course been adjusted to protect staff and customers.

“Keeping our customers and retail colleagues safe is our number one priority,” said Max Taylor, Consumer Director of Vodafone UK. “This is why we have put in weeks of planning, taking time to talk to people returning to store and listening to feedback so everyone feels comfortable and has confidence in the measures we have put in place.

“We’ve seen in other countries, such as Italy and Spain, that some customers prefer to go in store rather than call us or chat online and we are keen to meet this need. Our phased approach means we can offer a personalised, local service and start to re-boot the high street, while at the same time not forgetting those who still want to be helped from home.”

Vodafone has introduced several new rules to minimise the risk. Stores have been re-organised to ensure social distancing, staff will be on a rota so they are always with the same colleagues and only contactless payments will be taken. Interestingly enough, no devices will be on display for the immediate future.

While completely understandable, this is somewhat of a hindrance to the business and the general public. When spending north of $1000 on a smartphone, customers will want to see and feel the device. It might add comfort for the individual to physically touch the device prior to purchase, perhaps explaining one of the reasons the high street presence is so important to the MNOs and why Virgin Media decided to permanently close its own retail footprint.

Virgin Media pointed to the increased prominence of online sales channels over the last few years, few people will want to physically inspect a wifi router prior to purchase, while maintenance will always take place in the home not a store.

Although not every store will reopen immediately, it does appear there are no permanent closures of high street stores as a result of COVID-19 for the MNOs.


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Three has also introduced several new rules to its stores in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While we know our stores will look and feel very different, we’re looking forward to reopening our doors so that we can start to serve our customers on high streets and local communities once more,” said Elaine Carey, Chief Commercial Officer of Three UK.

Floor stickers will help remind customers of the recommended two-metre social distancing rules, staff will be advised not to touch customer handsets unless completely essential and, depending on the size of the store, limited numbers of customers will be allowed inside.

This is a slight change, but the telco industry is returning to some prospect of normality. That said, this is an industry which has navigated the storms without any serious impact to operations.


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