When recently diminished Dixons said it was stocking only digital radios, it miscalculated the strength of its brand – and the longevity of analogue
The headlines seemed unequivocal. “Dixons switches off analogue radio”. “An era ends as Dixons switches off the wireless”. “Radio switch-off”.
The Daily Mail was quite clear: “Dixons, the country’s largest electrical chain, has decided to stop selling the analogue radio and concentrate on its digital successor.” The Daily Mirror echoed: “Dixons is phasing out traditional analogue radios which are being outsold 30 to one by digital models.” Both quoted Dixons managing director Nick Wilkinson: “The snap, crackle and pop of the traditional wireless is rapidly being replaced with the crystal-clear sound of digital audio broadcasting.”
The announcement was welcomed with delight by the Digital Radio Development Bureau (DRDB). “It makes complete sense,” Mandy Green told the Daily Telegraph. “The market for digital radios is growing so fast.”
Not much doubt there then – unless you remember that Dixons isn’t quite the company it was. Earlier this year, its parent company DSG International announced that all its shops were to be rebranded as Currys and the change has now happened. Far from being “the country’s largest electrical chain”, Dixons is no longer an electrical chain at all. It’s an online operation, and its analogue switch-off will only apply to online sales. Indeed, its few remaining shops – those in Ireland and the tax-free ones in airports – will still sell analogue radios.
The confusion was compounded by the mighty Reuters news agency, which mixed up the new smaller Dixons with its parent company. Its story was beamed round the world/ “DSG International, Britain’s biggest electrical retailer, is stopping sales of analogue radiosâ¦ DSG, formerly Dixons, said in a statement on its website that its decision reflected substantial growth in the sales of digital radios.” It too quoted Nick Wilkinson, promoting him to Dixons “group” managing director. “The traditional radio has been a huge part of home life in the UK, through good times and bad, over the last 100 years,” he said. “There is probably no other piece of technology that conjures such a powerful image as the old wireless perched on the mantelpiece with the family gathered round it.”
The quotes, you may now have guessed, came from a Dixons press release. The company certainly grabbed the headlines, as it intended, but did it do itself any favours? It didn’t draw attention to its structural changes, other than to describe itself as “the leading UK e-tailer of consumer electricals”, the significance of which may have passed journalists by. And though it found room for a detailed history of the wireless, it didn’t mention DSG or Currys, or say they would continue to sell analogue radios.
When I rang to clarify matters, DSG’s director of media relations, Hamish Thompson, conceded that the company should probably have made it clearer. He said it had been surprised how quickly the Currys name had already established itself with journalists as the group’s store brand and perhaps should have recognised that this knowledge wasn’t yet universal. But he also claimed that Dixons, as an online retailer, was now a more effective barometer of market trends, because it tapped into the buying habits of the early adopters.
I think he may have misjudged how long it will take to change the public’s perception of a huge brand like Dixons. The name is almost a generic for electrical retailers. More importantly, I think its claim that analogue radio is already on its way out is extremely premature – a view shared by other electrical retailers and even by the DRDB. John Lewis and Comet both said they would continue to sell analogue radios for the foreseeable future. The UK’s biggest manufacturer, Roberts, said DAB radios are much more complex to make than analogue ones, and half its sales are still analogue.
Unlike television, there is no switch-off date for analogue radio, nor is one expected in the foreseeable future. DRDB chief executive Ian Dickens told the Daily Mail a switch-off date would not yet be sensible: “There are many more analogue radios out there than TV sets – not only in our homes but also in our cars – and the market will dictate the switch-off date, driven by the consumer not the Government.”
Digital radio is undoubtedly the future and it offers many benefits – extra stations, text and information, and of course better sound quality. But the latter is not universal. With a DAB radio (as distinct from reception via satellite or cable TV), you have to be in an area with a decent signal. Radio buffs complain that sound quality is being compromised because broadcasters are trying to cram too many stations into the spectrum. In 15% of the country you cannot yet receive DAB at all, as I discovered on holiday in Dorset. Even in London, reception on my pocket DAB receiver is very variable, whereas my pocket Roberts radio, with FM, AM and Long Wave, can be heard almost anywhere.
But there is a statistic that should make everyone question whether analogue radio is on its way out just yet. According to one estimate, there are six radios per household in the UK – well over 100 million altogether. So far, just 3.3 million DAB sets have been sold.