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NPD: Trade-In Programs The New Smartphone Battleground

Port Washington, N.Y. — More than 60 percent of smartphone owners are aware that they can trade in their existing device for a new device, and more than half of smartphone owners plan to do so when they get a new phone, The NPD Group found in aconsumer survey.

 Currently, only 13 percent of smartphone owners said they traded in their previous mobile device.

 Growing awareness of trade-in options could potentially shift consumers’ loyalty from one carrier, retailer and handset supplier to another and from carrier stores to indirect retail stores, NPD said.

 Trade-in programs, which carriers have begun promoting to reduce their handset subsidies, have become “the new competitive battlefield” for carrier stores, retailers and handset vendors, said Eddie Hold, VP of NPD Connected Intelligence. “This means that the consumer may not necessarily shop at the carrier store for their next device but instead may look to big-box retailers if the trade-in price is right,” he said. Growing trade-in activity means that “potentially, the carrier grasp of the smartphone consumer could become more tenuous,” he noted.

“For a smartphone manufacturer, a trade-in option can provide an incentive for a consumer to switch loyalty from a competitor’s device to theirs,” Hold added. Almost all manufacturers offer a premium price to consumers who trade-up from a competitive brand, he noted.

  Among smartphone users, 30 percent said they would switch carriers if another carrier offered a better trade-in deal, NPD found. And almost 62 percent said they would be willing to shop at a different retailer, but not necessarily switch carriers, for a better trade-in price.

 “Mobile phone trade-ins have rapidly moved from being an obscure option to one that is front and center at the major carriers,” Hold said. “The shift comes as the carriers look to move away from the subsidy model — led by T-Mobile’s ‘uncarrier’ initiative but also by the increased demand for no-contract variations as the market hits a new level of maturity.

Consumer interest in trade-in programs “is great news for the retailers looking to carve out a larger share of the wireless retail market and sets the stage for a new level of pricing competition,” Hold continued. “Notably, the retailers benefit from their existing trade-in programs, which support all consumer electronics, not just mobile. A consumer could, conceivably, trade-in an old game console in return for a credit towards the latest and greatest smartphone.”

 Handset vendors “are grasping the trade-in opportunity too,” he said, noting that Nokia, Samsung and HTC all offer above-average trade-in values for the AT&T version of the 16GB iPhone 4S if the owner buys one of those companies’ phones.

 Retailer and vendor trade-in programs could reduce carrier stores’ share of smartphone sales, “and it is primarily for this reason that we’ve seen a flurry of trade-in activity in the past month,” Hold said. “The launch of JUMP, Next and Edge from T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon are all aimed at providing an easy upgrade path for consumers with a relatively certain exchange rate. But the cat may be well and truly out of the bag, and the competitive landscape for trade-ins will drive many consumers to consider their options more carefully moving forward.”