Moore: 2020 sees avalanche of change for wireless at national retail

Jeff Moore Industry Voices

There has been an avalanche of recent changes in terms of which wireless carriers are sold at national retail. The big picture?  Wireless carriers at national retail have less display space, and the diversity of choice of carriers at big box stores is declining.

The first part of this is the decline of Sprint and its related brands. Virgin Mobile had been sold at big box stores, but it was retired as a wireless brand. Over the past couple of years, Boost Mobile was pulled from Best Buy, Target, and Dollar General, and the only big retailer selling it now is Walmart. This was occurring before its acquisition by Dish Network.

Sprint exited Target last year. The brand has also been retired at Costco, although there is no loss of choice at Costco.  Before August, three of the four national carriers were visible at each Costco kiosk, but the assortment of carriers varied.  Now it is a “tripod” with sales of Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile at each store.

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There is a “Sprint Now Part of T-Mobile” transitional brand that is seen at Walmart and Best Buy, which could be a counter to the trend, as it is likely to result in T-Mobile sales at these stores. Previously, no phones from T-Mobile were seen at any big box retailer other than Costco.

Verizon partially exits, but wait for part two

Verizon in 2020 has pulled postpaid and prepaid sales from Target. Verizon has exited Sam’s Club. With Verizon and Sprint out of the way, AT&T is the only national postpaid carrier sold at Sam’s Club and Target. 

Verizon is set to acquire Tracfone late in 2021. National retail is Tracfone’s forte, starting with Straight Talk, which has 9.7 million subscribers and is only sold at Walmart. Walmart Family Mobile is another Tracfone brand sold at Walmart, while Simple Mobile, Total Wireless and Tracfone are brands broadly sold at national retail. Verizon has hinted about keeping Tracfone brands, but we’ll see how many get retired.

AT&T, Best Buy, Walmart

Cricket Wireless and AT&T Prepaid halted phone sales at Best Buy in October, with SIMs still available there, as first observed by Wave7 Research and as reported by BestMVNO. That said, not only is AT&T the only national postpaid carrier sold at Target and Best Buy, AT&T has doubled down at Target. The carrier has reps from Cydcor, a third-party-labor vendor, that now have a strong presence in the mobile department of hundreds of Target stores.

For its part, Best Buy Mobile closed all 250 of its stores in 2018. Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and various prepaid brands were sold there. These stores were much smaller than regular Best Buy stores. The retailer said that now that nearly everyone has a cellphone, the stores no longer had the same performance as before.

Meanwhile, Walmart has dedicated reps, but less display space. In June 2019 Walmart announced plans to add “dedicated wireless experts” to 600 more Walmart Supercenters in time for the holiday season in 2019, with 3,000 stores staffed by these “experts.”  My firm, Wave7 Research, has reported that this effort has successfully boosted postpaid sales at Walmart, which were minimal just a few years ago. There is slightly less display space for wireless now than in years past, but the national carriers are there, five Tracfone brands have phones sold there, and Boost Mobile continues to have a presence.

Wave7 Research has consistently reported that Consumer Cellular is the top seller at Target, with the senior-focused carrier’s customers getting support and quality care from dedicated third-party reps at Target. However, these reps are now present at only a minority of stores, and there are some Target stores where activations are not occurring. Consumer Cellular is being purchased by GTCR, a private equity firm, and changes could be in the offing.

Less choice, particularly at Best Buy

Following the Verizon purchase of Tracfone and the exit of two AT&T prepaid brands from Best Buy, the only prepaid competitor with phones at Best Buy other than Verizon will be GreatCall, which is focused on connected aging and has a limited selection. There could be more focus on SIM-focused sales, as Best Buy features SIMs from a variety of carriers, including H2O Wireless, Ultra Mobile, Ting, and others. AT&T is now the only choice for postpaid at Sam’s Club and Target.

After years of relative stability, there has been an avalanche of change for wireless at national retail, resulting in less choice and less visibility. There’s the gauntlet. Will Dish Network, one of the cable companies, or one of the MVNOs step up?  We shall see.

Jeff Moore is Principal of Wave7 Research, a wireless research firm that covers U.S. postpaid, prepaid, and smartphone competition.  Jeff has 25 years of telecom industry experience, including 13 years of competitive intelligence work for Sprint. Follow him on Twitter @wave7jeff.

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceWireless.