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Growing to a T

Senior editor Katherine Field talked with John Clelland, VP channel development for T-Mobile, about the company’s unique expansion model as well as its more traditional modes of growth and a new store design.

(November 1, 2010) In 2009, news headlines suggested shake-ups at T-Mobile—but not of a negative nature. The Bellevue, Wash.-based mobile phone retailer, which has built a brand empire on innovative marketing that includes endorsements by such celebrities as actress Catherine Zeta-Jones and pro basketball icon Charles Barkley, unveiled an innovative growth plan it called the T-Mobile Premium Retailer (TPR) program.

Designed to ease entrepreneurs into their own T-Mobile retail stores, the program aimed its earliest efforts at the Latino community, labeling the growth drive “TPR Latino” and launching in Southern California with plans to expand to 10 highly Hispanic metropolitan areas including New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Miami. Not your typical franchise model, TPR doesn’t charge royalties or franchise fees, but rather provides start-up capital, training and ongoing support to qualified prospective business owners.

Owners get their own business, and T-Mobile gets a quick path to more stores—all managed by highly motivated operators.

Senior editor Katherine Field talked with John Clelland, VP channel development for T-Mobile, about the company’s unique expansion model as well as its more traditional modes of growth and a new store design. Clelland, whose responsibilities include overall distribution strategy, market planning, and company-owned real estate development, construction and facilities, says that T-Mobile has gotten aggressive with growth, with plans to expand the retail footprint by another 1,000 locations over the next few years.

Overall, how has T-Mobile fared during the downturn?

T-Mobile has continued on a growth path in 2010, opening more store locations, adding 106,000 contract customers in Q2 as well as increasing data revenue by 18%, all while expanding our HSPA+ network (“High-Speed Packet Access,” which is a wireless broadband standard), now offering 4G speeds in more than 65 major metropolitan areas, with plans to reach 100 major metropolitan areas and 200 million people by the end of 2010.

What are some specific challenges and advantages you have faced during the last 18 to 24 months?

While we fared well in Q2, the economic downturn has definitely raised challenges for us as [it has] every business during this period, but it has also played to T-Mobile’s strength in providing great customer value.

Another advantage is the unique model of our branded third-party partner program, the T-Mobile Premium Retailer program. This program is not a franchise and provides savvy retailers with unprecedented training and support, while it provides our customers a complete shopping experience—the same quality level of products and service as our company-owned locations.

As you look forward to 2011, what are your growth plans?

We are extremely aggressive on growth across all channels, particularly with our new T-Mobile Premium Retailer program. There are plans for more than 1,000 new retail locations within the next few years.

What store design changes have you made over the last 18 to 24 months?

We engaged in a major store redesign when we launched our T-Mobile “Playground” model in Q4 2008. This design has been rolled out across the country with new store builds and remodels for company-owned, branded partner and kiosk locations. T-Mobile Playground stores offer customers a unique, interactive retail experience. From interaction with staff to store fixtures and features that make customers want to visit, learn, stay and play, the design model is more engaging and interactive for our customers. In addition to a more attractive and energetic space that draws customers in, the format also features demos that allow the customer to interact with the phone they are interested in and to play with features, while comparing and contrasting to other phones. It’s a unique approach to delivering customer delight.

We also are focusing our merchandising and display to effectively show off new devices coming into the category, like netbooks and tablets.

Has your real estate strategy changed with the downturn?

We have been able to get much more intelligence on site selection over the last few years and are translating this knowledge of our customer into finding the best and most convenient locations. As one of the most growth-focused retailers in the country at present, we are enjoying the opportunity to take advantage of better locations at more attractive lease rates.

What do you feel differentiates T-Mobile from its competitors?

Great customer value, the broadest selection of Android devices, the most pervasive mobile broadband network in the country and stellar customer service. The company has continued its run of customer service accolades awarded by J.D. Power in its Wireless Retail Sales Satisfaction and Customer Service indices. On that front, we’ve been quite successful, taking top honors in nine out of 12 total studies for Retail Sales Satisfaction. Our most recent win, awarded in August, was the third victory in a row in the category.

What about you, personally? What have you brought to the T-Mobile table that you are most proud of?

I have been with T-Mobile for 10 years and remember when text messaging was a capability that we weren’t really sure people would use! I joined T-Mobile after eight years at PepsiCo and Yum!, working on restaurant brands. Many people wondered how experience in the “low-tech” restaurant business would translate into the “high-tech” wireless world. Successful restaurants serve their customers consistently great quality food in a great environment; in the wireless business, people are looking for great quality service that they can rely on every day, which is not so different. Over the years, I have tried to make sense of the technology, the hardware and the alphabet soup of acronyms with this same focus on the customer.

When I first started, we used to talk about things like “someday you will be able to listen to music on your phone,” and today we are rolling out new capabilities daily that are literally changing the way people communicate and live their mobile lives. I love this business, and I think that we are still just starting to see the capabilities we can bring to market—you should hear how we complete “someday you will…” now!