Meet the man repurposing London phone boxes as smartphone repair points
When Rob Kerr saw a repurposed phone booth at an event, he immediately saw the potential for Lovefone. While the phone booth in question was a teeny-tiny micro-office, complete with desk and Skype connection, his own more mobile business was a more natural fit.
“I was expecting to conclude that the move was a temporary flash of PR, but it’s actually anything but”
On Tuesday 16 August 2016, Lovefone opened its second store. Only this one was in a phone box outside a pub in south-east London. The Mitre on Greenwich High Road, to be precise. “The pub’s really nice, and they let our repair guy use the toilet,” Kerr tells me over a drink near their Fitzrovia main office. I suspect that pub floors are responsible for more than their fair share of phone smashes, so they certainly have the opportunist angle covered.
I must admit that when I first arranged to meet Kerr to talk about the phonebox repair station, I was expecting to conclude that the move was a temporary flash of (clever) PR, but it’s actually anything but. The more you think about it, the more it makes sense. To rent another office in central London would cost around £5,000 per month. Plenty of Lovefone’s repairs are callouts performed from portable kits, and they don’t actually take up that much space. Why not repurpose old, disused phone boxes to supplement the tech that replaced them?[gallery:1]
Tiny, but already profitable
“I imagine quite a few people thought it was just a publicity stunt,” laughs Kerr as I put my initial suspicions to him. But even if he had conceived it as such, the first week would have definitely make him take it more seriously.
“The phone booth in Greenwich has been running for just over a week, and has already broken even”
The phone booth in Greenwich has been running for just over a week, and has already broken even. “I spent last week there when we just launched it – we thought it would take an hour, but in the end it took five. The amount of traffic – people coming by and looking at it. When you see a phone box with branding and someone sitting inside it, it automatically draws your attention.”
“Within 18 months, we hope to get 35-37 boxes going,” says Kerr, with plans to put 20-25 of them in London, before putting a couple in other big British cities. Kerr cites Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield as possible targets.[gallery:2]
Kerr himself doesn’t do any of the repairs (“I’m the person who breaks phones,” he jokes), dealing with the business-development side of things, but he tells me the booths are spacious enough to be comfortable for the engineer working it that day. “To be honest, it’s not bad at all. It was a big design challenge building it, because they’re made of cast iron and they have all these weird knobs and flanges inside. We can’t do anything to the box itself on inside or outside, because they’re listed structures.”
“The next booth to open (Knightsbridge) will be getting a substantial upgrade, with unbreakable pyrex glass, CCTV and a floor safe”
“We had to come up with a design that could be built, taken apart and reconstructed inside, and it all has to be wedged in. It has to be wedged – no screws or anything. Then you have to figure out how you get not only the parts, tools and units, but also a repairer inside, and have it not feeling too crowded.”
The next booth to open (Knightsbridge) will be getting a substantial upgrade, with unbreakable pyrex glass, CCTV and a floor safe. “The problem is in winter, what do you do? If it’s raining outside or if it’s cold.” You have to be quite warm when doing the repairs, because the work is fiddly and requires a steady hand.[gallery:7]
Lovefone’s big bet
No matter how convenient, though, Lovefone has no plans to ditch the main shopfront in north London. “There are definitely some things we can’t do. We can’t do PC or Mac repair – you need quite a big area for that,” Kerr explains. A central lab will have all the larger equipment needed, with plans to expand their repair repertoire (smartwatches and even drones, apparently). “We’re seeing these boxes as being almost drop-off and pick-up points for more complex repairs,” Kerr says.
Indeed, rather than being a cute talking point, the phone booths could actually be the springboard that sees Lovefone’s business explode. “When you’re a small company, you have to stay cashflow-positive. There’s a lot of stock exposure associated with this business – we have to carry a fairly high level of stock across multiple models, and if you don’t have stock, people get annoyed and don’t come back.”[gallery:10]
“This next iteration of the business where we have a centralised lab will give us maybe four to five times the level of stock we do. The phone booths are key – they’re kind of our big bet.”
“The communication device of the last century is getting one final hurrah by looking out for its omnipresent 21st-century replacement”
It’s a market that has grown massively in the six years since Lovefone opened, and Kerr estimates that, currently, the company fixes up to 50 phones per day, and somewhere between 1,000 and 1,5000 handsets every month. Surely the advances in screen technology have eaten into their potential, though? “I think the screens are more scratch-resistant, but all these new iterations of Gorilla Glass don’t protect from shattering – that’s one thing you can’t protect against.”
In other words, smartphones aren’t getting any more robust, and larger screens and glass backs just mean more bits to crack. If Lovefone’s brave new business plan succeeds, then maybe you’ll find yourself using a phone booth for the first time in over a decade. The communication device of the last century is getting one final hurrah by looking out for its omnipresent 21st-century replacement.