Bluechipworld: Bargain hunting for the channel

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Bluechipworld is building its presence by evolving products and striking more distribution and retail deals.  Boss Simon Hassell tells Paul Withers how continued innovation is key in staying ahead of the competition
“Innovation is key to our business. We probably spend 30 per cent of our working week on innovation and development of our portfolio,” says Bluechipworld managing director Simon Hassell.

He has grounds for such a claim. Since he left accessories distributor Kondor 18 months ago to head up the Bluetooth product manufacturer in the UK, it has picked up some choice sales channel supply deals on the back of its expanding portfolio.

Bluechipworld has 19 retail partners including Carphone Warehouse, Phones 4U, T-Mobile, Tesco, Expansys, Asda, Argos,

Dixons, Halfords, Boots, Play and Amazon. It has just added Shebang Distribution and CMS Peripherals to its distribution partners, supplying ODM products to the former’s burgeoning Nexus accessories brand. The pair join its long-standing relationships with Kondor and Data Select.

The firm’s expanding portfolio now covers handsets, Bluetooth headsets, Bluetooth in-car kits, handset holders, charging solutions, Bluetooth dongles, Apple product accessories, other smartphone accessories, protective cases and a number of music devices.

Handsets remain its key focus although less so as it follows the convergence of consumer electronics and evolves into related goods markets, such as MP3 players and radios.

Growing handset range
This time last year, Bluechipworld began its assault on the handset market with the VX-1 mini mobile, the size of a credit card and designed primarily as an emergency handset, performing only basic call and text functions.

Tesco was given an exclusive to sell it unlocked for £18.99. The retailer announced in January the VX-1 was one of its best-selling mobiles in the weeks leading up to Christmas, shifting over 10,000 units.

This was followed by five more phones in the VX series, consisting of two phones similar in design to the VX-1, two that took on a BlackBerry form factor with a full QWERTY keypad and one targeting the senior market.

A number of other handsets have followed. The BC-1M is similar to the VX-1 but has an in-built MP3 player and retails for £29.99. The BC-1Q is also similar but with a QWERTY keypad and retails for £39.99.

The ‘Solar handset’ is a rugged phone that features a built-in solar panel, meaning it can be charged via sunlight.   It also features a torch and is waterproof and dust proof, retailing for £79.99.

The BC-5i is an upgrade from the VX-5. It also features big buttons and vibration alerts as well as one-touch calling, a torch and FM radio, retailing for £39.99. The BC-7 (£79.99) and BC-8 (£99.99) also take the BlackBerry form factor but it’s the upcoming BC-9 that has received rave reviews from retail partners, it says.

The phone is another to take the BlackBerry form factor and is a dual-SIM device that comes with an MP3 player, two-megapixel camera, FM radio and microSD card slot. The phone is scheduled for launch in the UK in February 2011.

Hassell says: “Everywhere we’ve showcased this phone, people have said they want to take it. We’ve manufactured 20,000 just for the Vietnamese market.”

Portfolio strength
The start of 2011 is going to be a busy time for Bluechipworld, including exhibition space at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January. There it will launch three new Android phones, which will all be priced below £100.

Hassell feels the presence of industry veteran John Barton will be a factor in the company’s success in the Android market.

Barton, who was LG UK sales and marketing director for five years before leaving the company in March, joined the company in May as a non-executive director. “When John joined his experience in the Android market was paramount in what we should be doing and how to do it,” says Hassell.

But Bluechipworld’s other product categories are coming to the fore now too, although Hassell admits he hasn’t seen much growth in sales of charging solutions and in-car holders. Nevertheless, he suggests the blurred space between smartphones and tablet devices requires servicing now with chargers and device holders.

It’s a different story for Bluechipworld’s other product lines. It has 25 variants of Bluetooth headsets, priced from £7.99 upwards.

Hassell claims the company “dominates the entry level Bluetooth product area”.

It has tried to live up to its innovation tag here too. The BH710 and BH50 are both multi-point compatible, meaning they can be connected to more than one handset. The BH-50 also features a dual microphone to cancel out echo and background noise. “The design and specification on Bluetooth headsets has dramatically improved,” says Hassell.

“Consumers are now interested in features such as dual microphones and multi-points. They also want them smaller and looking more like fashion accessories.”

Beyond mobile
Bluetooth car kits continue to sell well. Bluechipworld has continued to roll out entry level kits from £19.99 across its retail partners. It is also continuing to manufacture a number of smartphone accessories, such as protective casings, silicon cases and cases with built-in chargers.

Bluechipworld is seeing some of its biggest areas of growth in the portable power sector. The company is developing a number of portable chargers so they work not only on mobiles, but with others such as digital cameras and handheld games consoles. It plans to enter new ground by targeting those specialising in photography to  chargers, such as Boots and Jessops.

It’s music product category is also a success, according to Hassell. Earlier this year it launched the iCandy brand, designed to attract 18-35 year old customers. At present it only has two products within the brand portfolio – earphones and headphones – but six more in-ear headphones are being added to the range in the coming months.

Hassell claims sales volumes in Tesco have been extremely pleasing. “The volumes in Tesco have been huge – our sales are into the hundreds of thousands. We’ve showcased these products to the whole retail estate in the UK and the response to them has been overwhelming.”

Hassell acknowledges Bluechipworld is up against more established brands in this market such as JVC, Phillips, Sony and Panasonic, but he reckons its focus on innovation can see it beat these others to offer the customer better value for money.

“Whilst we’ll never be a direct competitor to these, we look at what they’re offering in this space and try to give customers more for their money,” he says.

Outside of mobile centric products, the company has also developed three GPS devices. The first is a data logger that logs where the user is. The second is a tracker that logs where the user has travelled and the third is a pet tracker that can be clipped to an animal’s collar so if it ever goes missing, the user can see where it is.

All work by linking the GPS products up to a smartphone or PC using accompanying software.

Trade show importance
Bluechipworld demonstrates its growing product portfolio at trade shows across the globe to add partners its list.

The Hong Kong Electronics Trade Fair in October was Barton’s first with the company. Looking back on it, Barton realises how important the show was for the company in that it came away with five times as many international customer leads than expected.

“We thought if we could attract two or three customers from that show then we would have been pleased but twe got closer to 15, which was an exceptional result. A lot of the people that operate in these countries recognise the value of our marketing and the Bluechipworld brand, and the fact they’re able to bring it to these other territories for the first time, says Barton.

The US, South American, Australian, New Zealand and Japanese markets are on the agenda for early next year. It currently has a partnership with distributor foneGear to supply retailers across the US but is looking to add to that. It also has new customers in Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina. In Australia, it supplies Cole’s department stores.

It also has a presence across the majority of Europe and is close to entering markets in the CIS territories. Hassell says: “The potential customers out there all seem very keen on working with us.”

“We never stop innovating and innovation is still at the forefront of our business,” says Hassell.

“Retailers will say it’s our innovation they like because we always show them new products when we see them. There isn’t a day goes by where we’re not being shown new designs for products. Our speed to market is key.

“This isn’t a new market – it’s a fresh approach, and it is welcomed with open arms everywhere. That’s the way it will continue. We’re taking this fresh approach and working hard.”

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