From a single shop, it grew to an empire that defined the mobile phone industry for 30 years
Even in a week that seemed like a sequel to Contagion, the news of Carphone Warehouse’s shocking downsizing felt apocalyptic.
Even with headlines dominated by THAT damned virus, the news went around the world.
Even commentators as distinguished as Walt Mossberg, who is considered the father of consumer tech journalism, tweeted: “I feel sad about the UK’s Carphone Warehouse closing permanently. Many years ago, before widespread cellphone use and texting hit the US, I spent a day in one of their newest London stores learning about the phenomenon with their CEO.”
Back in the day, when I was just starting Mobile News, I was intrigued by the mobile phone shop on Marylebone Road, which broke the mould of what a dealer should be.
In 1992, a mobile phone shop was not generally a fun place to be. It was usually a dingy shop festooned with boxes of trans-mobile radio receivers and other obscure gadgets.
It was usually staffed by a couple of spivvy herberts more interested in flicking through brochures of exotic Italian sports cars than attending to ‘normal’ people not likely to order a £2,500 NEC or Motorola brick on a three-year lease deal.
No, this place was different. For a start it had a weird name: it didn’t only sell car phones and it wasn’t a warehouse.
It ran catchy commercials on Capital Radio voiced by the top DJ of the day – Mike Smith – that wormed their way into your ear.
Behind the counter were bright, attractive people who actually smiled and spoke English rather than the jargon and acronyms of a science graduate.
And it was all run by a friendly young bloke who looked like your kid brother, but who you soon realised had a mind as sharp as a tack and an ability to spot (and leverage) opportunities that the rest of the nascent mobile phone channel couldn’t conceive of. Which was to popularise a product that was still in the hands of engineers and technologists, and being sold to City boys and captains of industry.
Mobile News was launched as a plain- English paper that would cover people news rather than report on the RF componentry of the latest cellular transmitters and receivers.
Unlike the rest of the tech press corps at the time, who spoke in science, I was an ex-advertising and marketing hack who had no interest in what made the things work.
So I felt a natural affinity with Charles Dunstone and his mission to democratise mobile telephony.
Our dealings threw up some memorable experiences. There was the Carphone Warehouse annual ball, at which the great and good of the mobile channel shared the dance floor with Charles’ shiny and bright employees.
There were the day trips on his racing yacht Hamilton, which resulted in one of the more cringeworthy moments of my life.
I politely asked one of his crew members what he actually did, only for my wife to hiss in my ear, “Idiot! That’s Simon Le Bon” (Oh, I thought his name was ‘Rio’).
Dunstone gave his staff a great working environment years before ‘empowerment’ and ‘inspiration’ became buzzwords of the Linkerati.
But he always made sure they took care of business.
Carphone Warehouse won the Best Retailer trophy at the Mobile News Awards 10 years in a row, resulting in winning our first and only Gold trophy.
But the early rock and roll years of Carphone Warehouse couldn’t last. The mobile market went nuts. Carphone went public and had to play by big boy City rules.
The demise of the stores has been on the cards ever since the company fused with Dixons six years ago. The deal resulted in a huge duplication of effort.
The rise of the internet, online shopping, uniformity of network offerings and proliferation of the networks’ own high-street chains made the concept of an independent high-street mobile phone retailer as viable as a camera shop.
I can only imagine Charles’ angst. Carphone Warehouse defined him, and he will be bereft at the redundancies.