Phone Companies Cater to Hands-On Consumer Demand; Retail Stores Becoming More Wired So Customers Can Test Features

Article excerpt

Byline: David Bauerlein

The battle for supremacy in the cellphone industry entails a high-powered ground game as well.

In the past month, Cellular Sales, an authorized retailer for Verizon Wireless, and AT&T each opened new standalone Jacksonville stores showcasing products for those carriers.

Verizon Wireless plans to build a company-owned, standalone store in the coming months in the River City Marketplace mall on the Northside.

The construction of the stores demonstrate the continuing strength of cellphone sales and the desire of customers to take a hands-on approach to buying them. Just as phones are getting more advanced, retail stores are becoming more wired so customers can test features using demonstration models.

"It's similar to buying shoes in that you want to try it and hold it and feel it," said Jay Witherspoon, director of marketing for Cellular Sales, a Knoxville, Tenn., company.

The new 5,000-square-foot AT&T store in the Regency Square mall area was built on property that previously was the site of an Applebee's restaurant. The restaurant was torn down and AT&T built the store on land fronting Atlantic Boulevard. The new spot replaced a smaller store that was tucked away in a nearby shopping center. The bigger store employs 11 full-time and one part-time workers.

AT&T customer Patricia Payne of Jacksonville said her first impression when she walked into the store was the amount of open space.

"The other one was just too crowded," she said. "Everything was jammed together."

Payne said she's bought some items over the Internet, but she wouldn't feel comfortable purchasing a new cellphone online. Being able to test the items and get advice from sales representatives is a must, she said.

Store manager Bob Lumby said that's why the store has several demonstration tables where customers can make phone calls, surf the web, and test other functions of devices sold at the store.

"You can really demonstrate what you're getting for the money," he said.

Verizon is using a similar model for its new stores such as the one planned for River City Marketplace. The store, slated for opening in early 2012, will be 4,000 to 4,500 square feet with a "demo bar" displaying dozens of working models of devices. …