When met with the question “do you want to go to the phone store?” my answer…yes. I get it, they were just phones, but to me that was a fun way to spend a little afternoon time. The phone store had so many phones and in so many colors, most of them you would hardly ever see at someone’s house. They were the fanciest of phones in both push button and rotary. The old-timey French cradle and candlestick phones. The phones with the ridiculously large buttons and of course the sleek office phones with so many buttons you just had to wonder what they all did as you pressed every one.
Now imagine my surprise when I found out that not too long ago phone stores did not exist. Well into the 1960’s the telephone companies only made service calls. If you needed a new phone installed, you made a service call. If your phone was not working, service call. You even had to call the telephone company when you needed a new phone and they would bring one out to you. The labor costs for all of these services was starting to have an impact on both the telephone companies and the consumers. By that time it could be upwards of $50 just to have a new phone installed.
On the other hand, the telephone industry was changing rapidly. Electronic, computerized, digital switching was becoming a reality along with touch calling. Automatic number identification equipment would soon be installed that would allow for long distance calls without the need for an operator. They were starting to see a small glimpse of what it would be like for the consumers to take a few of the phone operations into their own hands.
It took the telephone companies, including General Telephone, as good as ten years to test and study a new and undeveloped concept in retail marketing. Different types of neighborhoods would be selected that would allow the them to rewire and install introductory plug-in phone outlets in both apartment buildings and residential areas. To further test the reactions of these communities they were often split in half, with one half receiving the new plug-in outlets and the others unchanged. Then a nearby retail store was opened for these initial customers. It was no small task.
In the beginning GTE found it difficult to convince the public to let the telephone company install the new plug-in outlets. Only half of the residents let them change the outlets on the first try. After that GTE tried mailing letters, but only to mild success. Finally they decided to simply phone the residences and set up scheduled appointments. It took more or less a year before operations were up and running. However, by that time the retail stores were already reporting an overwhelming number of customers.
In the early 1970’s, the first GTE Phone Mart stores were basic. Out of the original ten stores opened, six were located in GTE business offices. This resulted in most customers visiting for specific reasons as these locations were not built to generate foot traffic. However, from the very beginning, people instantly embraced the fact they could walk into a Phone Mart instead of relying on a service call. GTE even saw a small but immediate uptick in push-button phone sales and extension phone sales.
Not only was GTE aware that they were on the verge of something greater than great, they also understood the overall significance of how the telephone industry was altogether changing. GTE took great care and responsibility as they carried forward. The customers now excited for the opportunity to walk into a store, GTE would make sure their entire experience would be the best one possible.
An internationally well known design firm was hired. A color pallet, floor configurations and displays were developed. Small areas dedicated to informing the customers about Phone Mart were tested. They experimented with rear projectors, posters, graphics, and a colorful slide show. In addition, several phones in the display area would play a recorded message that spoke of GTE as a company, the Phone Mart concept and all of the wonderful services and products they have for you. There was also an area designed for demonstrations to teach the customers just how to use the their new plug-in jacks. You know plug it in and unplug it.
GTE also considered everyone that was effected by this new customer service concept. For example, while many new jobs were being created in the retail field, GTE would be phasing out positions that would no longer be necessary. In 1985, in a small town in Pennsylvania, there were 26 switch board operators who would be working their last shift as calls were now being automatically switched to Pittsburgh. Out of these 26 people, a small few we transferred to another GTE location while the majority took early retirement or another package that included money for relocation and schooling if needed. GTE wanted to make sure that all of their employees were not only pleased but also proud to be a working for their company as this would only go hand in hand with making the customers more than happy to shop in their stores and consume of all their services.
It may have taken decades for the telephone companies to get this new age of retail and technology, but it did not take them long roll out more. In 1995 GTE was online. Now 2.6 million people could all shop at the same Phone Mart with more phones than any brick and mortar could hold. Personally, I don’t know if the $9.95 monthly subscription fee would have been worth it, but it did come with unlimited access to The Electronic Mall.
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