Putting a damper on the UK handset business

Handset manufacturers must be laughing as they make more and more replacement phones for the U.K. market. Not only do people here regularly leave their phones at the pub or have them stolen -- an estimated 1.3 million went AWOL last year -- but they also throw them into drinks, drop them down the toilet and stick them in the washing machine (presumably after the toilet incidents).

A report released on Feb. 19 by CSW Research Ltd. (Continental Research) says 4 percent of people in the U.K. have had their mobile stolen in the past year. Another 2.9 million broke theirs in unspecified circumstances, 1.6 million just plain lost them, 600,000 dropped them down toilets, 400,000 somehow got them into their drinks and another 200,000 accidentally washed them in the washing machine.

Oh, and the police were presumably too distracted to catch all the thieves because of the 1.3 million people who dialled 999 (the U.K.'s emergency number) by mistake.

This "high level of enforced churn" will make sure the market for replacement mobile phones stays buoyant, Continental said.

Londoners were the worst hit in terms of theft -- they are twice as likely to have had their phones stolen as anywhere else in the country. But then, Londoners do seem to use their phones in the street more than the rest of the country -- after a year living in London I went home to Edinburgh for a visit and got some strange looks when I walked down the main shopping street chatting into my phone. Phones that are used in the street are easier to steal, so...

It's young people who suffer most -- 11 percent of respondents between 15 and 24 had been robbed of their phones. The survey only looked at people 15 and over, though, and younger children are also being attacked. A 12-year-old girl is currently in hospital with a punctured lung after being stabbed for her phone. In London, of course.

New phones aren't only bought because they've gone missing or been damaged: Britons like new toys. An estimated 28 percent will upgrade in the next year just because they want a new model, the research showed, with young people and those on contracts -- as opposed to prepay -- more keen on moving to new phones.

It's a style thing, mostly: 45 percent of planned upgrades will be to a smarter handset and 43 percent to a smaller one. Other upgrade reasons include ease of use, access to WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) and GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) services, the ability to use the phone abroad and the inclusion of personal organizer functions.

So what are people doing with these phones, other than throwing them about carelessly?

People use them as alarm clocks, calculators and calendars, Continental Research said. They download new ringtones and graphics, take them abroad on holiday and sign up for automated text messages about the football scores.

And they use them more than ever, with 10 percent of people making all of their calls on their mobile and not using land lines at all. The younger the user the more they spend. People in the 25 to 24 age group spend an average of £24.11 (US$34.54) a month, but even those over 65 are spending an average of £10.47 a month. Men spend more than women, at an average of £21.18 compared to £16.67.

All this makes it a healthy market for the manufacturers. Just wait till 3G takes off and people start taking their PDA to the bathroom instead of the morning paper. Shares in Nokia, anyone?

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