The trains out of Paddington are not running to schedule. The traffic on the Bath Road is backed-up. The sky over Slough is grey and the cab driver is grumbling. On the street, peoples umbrellas have blown inside out.
It is not the sunniest backdrop to a conversation about LG Mobiles latest handset, the Shine. But even Korean technical wizardry cannot control the weather.
For its part, the UK team will raise temperatures next week with a star-packed launch party for the device. The identities of the headline acts a band and showman, apparently are a closely guarded secret. But sources put LGs celeb spend for the event at around £250,000, which should ensure it trumps the launch party for the Chocolate last year, headlined by Wayne Rooneys squeeze Coleen McLoughlin.
LG Mobile sales director John Barton reckons Shine will be a bigger hit than its predecessor, which is quite something, considering sales of the Chocolate are knocking on a million in the UK already and topping seven million worldwide. In Korea, LGs home market, early sales of the Shine have outpaced the Chocolate at the equivalent stage in its shelf life at a rate of two-to-one. LG is selling 200,000 Shine handsets a month there.
UK retail and distribution warehouses take stock of the Shine this week and the public feeding frenzy should start on February 7. The LG team is rushed off its feet. Barton, weary but chipper at LGs Slough headquarters, claims its timing is perfect.
The launch of the Shine, hot on the heels of last years Chocolate, suggests LG has learned a lesson from US manufacturer Motorola, which took the market by storm with its iconic RAZR handset in 2004, but has since failed to annoint a worthy successor. Almost three years later, Motorola is still trading on the same glories.
Time will tell, of course, but for now Barton is confident that LGs roadmap will show that it is not a one-trick pony.
Prior to the Chocolate, you can argue that the RAZR was the last, great iconic handset. The Chocolate is the latest, and Shine will be the next. Two out of three aint bad, he says.
More than that, we are moving on at the right time. Respect for products that have been kept on the shelf for two or three years diminishes. You start to see them as tired. The job of the manufacturer, having extended the life of a product, is to ensure that the cut across to newer products is appropriate and well-timed. And we will show that with Shine. The Chocolate will continue to sell through the year, and sell well, but it is about the appropriate price erosion and positioning in the marketplace.
Shine is the second in LGs Black Label series of products, after the Chocolate. Barton reckons Shine will consolidate its position in the market, earned in the first place by Chocolate, as the brand most associated with handset design and fashion.
The Prada phone an LG handset branded by fashion house Prada is due at the end of February (see box, right) and will enhance LGs reputation as a design-led manufacturer.
According to Barton,where Sony Ericsson has triumphed among handset manufacturers by leveraging its brand and appealing to consumers as best-in-class for music and photography, so LG will make itself known among handset vendors for aesthetics. Its customers already recognise it as market leader in that sense, he says.
Other manufacturers have, from time to time, had the opportunity, but none of them has developed it properly. Networks, retailers and distributors applaud the fact that weve started to empower this design segment of the market. We take our network and retail customers out to Seoul to visit our design centre and all of them, without exception, have said that that LG leads the rest of the vendor market in terms of design, he says.
LG appears also to have sidestepped the Motorola trap by following the Chocolate up with a handset that looks and feels sufficiently different to its predecessor to spark a new wave of public interest. Comparing Shine to the Chocolate is like comparing an Aston Martin to a Trans Am.
In truth, its basic form-factor resembles Motorolas RAZR spin-off, the RIZR, and its feature set (two megapixel camera, expandable memory, standard MP3 player) is no great shakes. But its brushed stainless steel finish and weighty feel distinguish it from the Chocolate and competitor products. Its novelty factors are a new-style scroll wheel and a mirror screen that illuminates when the phone is in use, hence the name.
At the same time, LG will step up to the plate this year for functionality. Barton acknowledges the good work done by Sony Ericsson in this respect and, as is the trend, LG will start to range and market better-enabled products according to specific consumer functions whether that is the handsets camera, MP3 player or email client.
As we go forward, there will be a step up in the technology and feature-set as well, says Barton. Weve seen from the results in Q4 that Sony Ericsson has done a great job on that front.
A 3G version of Shine with the same form-factor is expected within the next eight weeks the right interval between the launch of the initial 2G model and the 3G version, according to Barton.
As a rule, networks reject 3G variants of hit models if the latency period is too long and the form-factor is not up to scratch. LG manufactured a 3G version of the Chocolate that never made the cut in the UK because of the success of the original 2G model and the late schedule of its follow-up.
The vendor community struggles to get the same form-factor for 3G variants of phones that have appeared already in the market as 2G models, explains Barton. One of the things were proud of is the fact that the 3G Shine handset has the same dimensions as the 2G model. So, weve crossed something of a barrier there. The other thing is that the networks arent interested in ranging 3G versions if there is a considerable time lapse between the two. So the 3G variant of the Shine cannot afford to come out too long after the original if it is, it will be rejected.
Two years ago, on the coattails of 3s market grab, LGs distribution deals centred around pre-pay devices to few channels. Barton was also faced, as head of a challenger brand, with tough negotiations from partners that expected to pay below the odds for its products. That issue has evaporated largely, says Barton. Weve got over that hurdle if it ever existed.
The expanded portfolio will be helped to market via LGs distribution reach, which has broadened on the back of the success of the Chocolate last year. Barton recruited former Carphone Warehouse director of indirect distribution Steve Fraser, with whom he has previously worked at One 2 One and 3, to head up LGs open market programme and boost sales through the retailer and distributor channels.
We moved to a wider distribution model out of necessity and, having established ourselves as a major player, our focus this year is to maintain parity on launch of hero products with the top four, says Barton. In 2006, we did what we had to do, what we said wed do and what others had already done. So, were in the big league now.
Barton sidesteps the question of network and retail exclusives, commenting only that it is an established vendor ploy for early sales and that it is important to divvy out exclusives to partners evenly through the year. He wont be drawn, but he doesnt rule out Shine variants down the line. It is about securing the right one, with the right channel, at the right time, he says.
LG has distribution contracts with 20:20 Mobile and Data Select. It has not sought further deals, and is unlikely to do so going forward. Barton observes that distribution is a fragile sector at present and that handset distributors are struggling to add value for manufacturers and retailers on either side of them. Scale and flexibility are key to survival, he reckons.
None of the guys who run those businesses would claim that they create a market, says Barton. They offer a solution to a series of headaches for networks and retailers and as long as they can do that there will be a place for them. But it is one of the areas of the industry that will come under great stress this year. If distributors can hold products that are under stress because of demand through foresight and planning, as well as scale and deliver the right variants at the right time, then they will distinguish themselves.
If the Shine shifts at the rate it is expected to, and if LG follows it up with the right products, then its distribution partners 20:20 and Data Select will be called upon to solve some giant-sized logistical headaches for retailers. And Barton insists that this year, unlike last, LG wont be remembered for just a single product, even if it does set the bar high next week.
The Chocolate was so successful last year that it took all the headlines, walked off with awards and overshadowed the rest of the portfolio to some extent, admits Barton.
But in 2007, we will have a number of different devices that will show the breadth of range that LG has, and we dont want to let one overshadow the rest. That wont happen this year. Shine is the first, but weve got plans for more big launches.
LG wears Prada
LG Mobile will follow the launch of Shine on February 7 by launching the touch-screen Prada phone, in conjunction with the luxury goods brand, at the end of February.
The handset falls very clearly into the fashion category that LG is attempting to make its own.
The Prada handset bears a striking resemblance to Apples long-awaited iPhone, announced at the Macworld conference in San Francisco earlier this month.
The iPhones most striking innovation, is its full-screen, touch-sensitive display, which the Prada phone shares.
Internet bloggers have gone so far as to suggest that LG was the OEM vendor behind the iPhone, which launches here at the end of Q4.
The similarities are not lost on LG Mobile sales director John Barton, though he considers such tittle-tattle all nonsense, but its all good press.
He says: By the time the iPhone actually launches in the UK, we will already have had in the marketplace a form-factor that supersedes it by seven months. The Prada phone has a full-screen, touch-sensitive interface and its due at the end of February. The iPhones feature-set will be overtaken by the time it hits the UK. It will have an appeal because of its maker, but not much in terms of functionality.
The Prada handset includes an extra-wide LCD screen, a two megapixel camera with a Schneider-Kreuznach lens, an MP3 player and external memory slot. It also comes with ringtones, pre-loaded content and Prada-branded accessories and leather case. The phone, which is 12mm thick, will be available for Ù’áa