Winning the ethnic vote

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The front window is small, the lighting dim. Inside, handsets tagged with inky price stickers are crammed behind a cracked glass display cabinet. Bollywood-style music crackles through a small stereo on the floor next to the old wooden counter, while next door a fried chicken and kebab takeaway plies its trade.

It’s a stereotypical image of an independent mobile phone dealership in the heart of an ethnic, predominantly Asian community; somewhere like East London, for example. It might not look as inviting as the bright new Carphone on the next high street, but don’t judge a book by its cover – chances are this store is successful in its own right, appealing to a completely different customer base.

Having a cultural connection with customers, by speaking their language and knowing the community, has become a tool for success for a large portion of independent dealers with an ethnic background. It provides independent dealers with a natural, emphatic sales technique that can’t be taught; and as such a chance to make some headway against multiple and network retailers.

Take Amirul Choudhury, director of Chytel Communications in east London’s Stepney Green, who has a 70 per cent Bangladeshi customer base. The first Bangladeshi migrants arrived in the area in the 1930s, one of them being Choudhury’s father.

Today, Choudhury estimates there are about 100,000 people of Bangladeshi origin living in the Stepney Green/ Mile End area. Choudhury reckons his ability to relate to them gives him an exclusive reach that the networks can’t penetrate.

“Those markets are not going to be touched by the likes of Vodafone, or Carphone Warehouse. It has to be done by people like us,” says Choudhury. “These customers don’t have enough knowledge of technology to feel confident enough to go to the major chain stores. I would be surprised if the likes of Carphone could reach that market effectively.”

Choudhury’s presence and activity in his local community also gives him one up on any chain or network store that tries to take him on. He writes a Bangladeshi language newsletter every week, which he says has a readership of 40,000. His store is also en route to the local mosque, where 10,000 people flocked each day to worship during the Ramadan period, and where Choudhury himself goes to pray. He boasts, “If you walked around East London and asked people if they knew Chytel Communications, I bet one in 10 people would say yes. We did nearly 200 connections last month. Our competitors barely did five.”

Choudhury is also gearing up for the approval of around 20,000 visa applications for Bangladeshis to work in the UK, which means a further 20,000 people looking to set themselves up with a mobile phone. “I want those 20,000 people to have a phone from me,” he says. He acknowledges, though, that these customers will largely be suited to prepay, because the majority would not pass network credit applications.

And his ambitions do not end there; Choudhury is on a mission to add a Nokia service centre to his store, but his pleas to the manufacturer have so far fallen on deaf ears. “If there was a Nokia service centre in my shop, I could market it to the whole Bangladeshi community of Britain,” he claims. “I’m 110 per cent confident I could give them the business – I’ve just ordered 3,000 Nokia handsets. Nokia is the most wanted brand in my community.”

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