Upgrading to a New Cell Phone in Japan Might Depend on Who You Are
Taking a break from the summer heat, this humble reporter was bribed with promises of nomi-hodai, all you can drink at usually unbeatable prices, to tag along as ‘the mobile phone expert’ recently in Shinjuku. So with ice tea-laden backpacks, we embarked on an blistering hot afternoon ketai safari in search of the elusive new V602sh handset from Sharp through Vodafone Japan, only to discover that this ultra-cool model was already sold out at the monster electronic consumer super-store of choice. Or was it? Thus unfolds an interesting look at how the subsidy-driven handset marketplace deals with existing vs. new customers.
As a foreigner in Japan, I have always marveled at the overwhelming level of customer service here… or at least it seems somewhat even with Rodeo Drive! In this hyper-competitive sales maket, the customer is generally treated with god-like status. With that in mind while wandering through the electronic wonderworld off east Shinjuku station, we managed to locate our intended target in less than five minutes and were approached by the smiling salesperson in less than five seconds. After indicating the desired model on display, he asked if the buyer was already a Vodafone user or would be signing up as a new Vodafone customer, in effect churning over from another carrier (read: DoCoMo or KDDI), while sharpening his pencil to get started on the paperwork.
My beer ticket angel indicated she was already an existing and satisfied Vodafone client, so after a quick check behind the counter, we were told that she would have to put her name on a back-order list because the v602sh was already sold-out. They were very sorry (bowing of course) explaing that that “it has been the most popular model.” The next natural question then was; if she signs up on your waiting list about how long will it be before taking delivery of this precious metal beast? A week? Perhaps a month? To which the poor salesperson could only apologize (more humble bows ensued) saying he didn’t know how long it would be.
I thought it was kind of strange that they would ask if she was already a Vodafone customer right off the bat, so just for fun I pretended to be a KDDI client who might also be interested in that same model. “Would I have to wait even longer on that back-order list then” we asked innocently, again after much backroom discussion the same sales person came back and said that I could get one (but only in white color) right then! Imagine how disappointed my lady friend was to find out that as an loyal customer she would have to wait… even though I could be walking out the door in 20 minutes with the prized model she was seeking. That just doesn’t seem to be in keeping with the ‘customer is god’ kind of service we have come to know and love (bows notwithstanding) about Japan now does it.
So, after the initial shock and gradual recovery of what appears to be a two-tiered sales system at one shop, I thought it would not be (really) fair to base an opinion on that incident alone. Therefore we then tried a similar approach again just down the alley, at another smaller shop, and got the same results, although that salesperson said I would have to come back tomorrow. So it seems if you want to buy that fancy new v602sh today, my best advice is to not admit you are already a Vodafone customer.
Meanwhile, it got me wondering if this double standard might actually have more to do with the way these stores are compensated from the vendors (Vodafone and/or Sharp in this case) when it comes to selling their handsets. If, in the likely fact, they have only a limited volume of units per dealer and their incentive (commission percentage) to sell a new subscriber is perhaps a more generous return than selling to a carriers existing customer, then it makes sense that most shops would try to squeeze the best profit possible from each available handset. You would have to conclude that all 3 carriers are offering basically the same sales incentive, although we did not try to play-out this charade for another model to confirm.
Even if that’s the case, the outcome is hardly a positive experience for an existing loyal customer, in this example someone who for over four years faithfully paid her monthly bill. Of course it is easy to conclude that market share percentages, as user rates approach saturation point, is a definite consideration for the telcos. However, you would think that keeping their existing customers happy should also be a important part of their churn strategy.
Perhaps I’m just old fashioned when it comes to market forces, but when we finally settled into a nice air conditioned lounge for those well-earned tall cool pints, my disappointed shopping mate couldn’t have summed it up any better. “Shouldn’t it just be first come, first served..?!?” She is in luck though as we found out today that the new W211S from Sony-Ericsson through KDDI is just hitting the streets, I’m betting she’ll be in front of that line – and most likely happier with the outcome – in more ways than one.
— Ken Gai