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Verizon and AT&T have vastly different ideas about phone cases

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Verizon’s phone case product manager, Helena Elicerio
Verizon’s phone case product manager, Helena Elicerio

Helena Elicerio wants to make Verizon the go-to spot for phone cases.

As Verizon’s phone case product manager, she’s betting accessories will define the company’s brand and transform its retail future. And Verizon is betting they will, too: the carrier currently offers over 150 iPhone cases, and that number has risen above 200 in the past.

Verizon has already overhauled 200 stores with a focus on cases and accessories. In these “Next Gen” stores, as they’re called, customers are able to touch and see cases outside their packaging in displays Verizon has designed to resemble “best-sellers at your local bookstore.”

Why the huge investment? Verizon needs people to buy phone cases because selling the actual phones results in little profit, according to analysts who spoke with The Verge. The company has to diversify its revenue lines, and cases are an easy cash opportunity. “Cases are a part of every phone launch, and [every phone] has to have phone cases, regardless of priority and size,” Elicerio says.

The new phone case layout in Verizon’s Next Gen stores.
The new phone case layout in Verizon’s Next Gen stores.

According to Verizon, the average customer spends around $40 on a case when buying a new phone. And one Verizon retail manager told me his store sells an average of $95 to $110 worth of total accessories per device. Employees bundle cases with screen protectors, chargers, cables, and whatever else they can tack onto an order. Most of that is pure profit.

“You want to make sure you’re taking advantage of a customer buying a phone to make sure they have the right accessories,” says Steve Baker, vice president and industry adviser in technology and mobile for the NPD Group. “Especially for retailers, part of the satisfaction for a customer is making sure they’re set up when they take [the device] out of the store... [It’s] an important way to both make profit and add satisfaction to the purchase.”

Accessories were a $6.5 billion industry in the US last year

Last year in the US, more than 75 million cases were sold, Baker says, accounting for about half of the $6.5 billion accessories market.

Elicerio wants Verizon to suck up most of that market. She’s been the company’s phone case product manager for the past two years. She previously worked in fashion as a buyer-merchandiser for companies like Gap and Delia’s, where she did essentially the same job she does now — evaluating products, trend spotting, and designing — except with clothing.

“When I was in fashion, one of the things people used to always make fun of me for was that I always changed my phone cases,” she says. “I don’t think anybody tied [cases] immediately back to a fashion accessory. I have an iPhone, but it looks exactly like everyone else’s, so this is how I can show my personality.”

And that’s the view she takes when it comes to sourcing her cases for Verizon’s stores. “When I came in, I wanted everyone to love phone cases as much as I did,” she says. “I try to make it something special, make it a reason to go to Verizon. I want to be the place everyone thinks to go.”

Verizon employs an entire accessories team, including Elicerio, that’s devoted to stocking and testing screen protectors, chargers, and cables. Elicerio solely focuses on cases, but the rest of the team sources other accessories and runs quality-assurance and drop tests. Basically whatever accessory you buy at Verizon is guaranteed to work as promised; you aren’t leaving your fate up to sketchy Amazon reviews.

That’s great for batteries and car chargers, but does anyone actually want to take a trip to their local Verizon store for a fashionable phone case?

I drove to a Next Gen Verizon store in New Jersey on a random weekday to check out its new case selection layout. No customers were inside, so it was just me, The Verge’s photographer, and Verizon’s team. The cases on the wall begged to be touched and held, but they were also mounted to their display, so I couldn’t actually pick them up and feel them against my hand. I could pet them, though. I talked to that store manager, who explained how the new store is arranged, and he seemed genuinely thrilled with the new layout. It looks nice! Still, I didn’t get the sense that anyone else was taking a ride to Verizon solely for the cases.

Verizon’s trying to appeal to millennials

Elicerio’s big bet is Verizon’s in-house phone case brand called Milk and Honey, which is designed to lure in “millennial” customers. The current selection only covers the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy lines and includes mostly clear cases with floral prints, both of which are trends Elicerio mentioned to me. While black cases are the “bread and butter” of the business, according to Elicerio, younger customers want more expressive cases, so she coordinates with the Verizon team in Asia to design cases based on what she thinks is trending. That’s how Verizon ended up selling a bunch of clear cases with leather accents, for example.

“I get to play with different materials and work with designers to develop products and make sure the fit is right, make sure they’re protective,” she says. “I’m looking at every single detail of this. I’m looking at the color of the bumper. I’m looking at the color of the leather. I’m looking at the way that it wears, how it feels in my hand.”

You won’t find Milk and Honey cases anywhere but Verizon stores. To further entice customers, Elicerio also partners with lifestyle brands like Under Armour to secure case launch exclusives. These cases are typically developed with input from Elicerio and are limited to a retail launch exclusive, meaning Under Armour could still sell these online after a few months. Regardless, no one is lining up around the block to buy an Under Armour-exclusive case the day it comes out.

Verizon thinks case exclusives are the key to success

“We have an assortment that fulfills the needs of customers, which could be a construction worker to a student to a commuter to someone with a kid, and we only have limited space on the floor,” Elicerio says.

Beyond providing a satisfying customer experience, Ross Rubin, principal analyst at Reticle Research, sees carriers’ cases as a way to differentiate themselves from one another. “It allows them to add a bit more of their brand, a bit more of their personality,” he says “[It’s] a bit more customization.”

At AT&T’s offices in Atlanta, Georgia, for example, the accessories team takes a more muted, realistic approach. Mary Ann Bernstein works as the company’s associate director of product marketing, doing basically the same job as Elicerio. Bernstein’s been in the business for nine years and works with her team of three to determine everything about cases, including which will go into stores and how much they’ll cost. Like Elicerio, Bernstein came from a fashion background. She used to work as a buyer for Macy’s. She ended up at AT&T right as it launched the iPhone 3GS because the company wanted to expand its case portfolio.

Since that time, she’s seen the industry evolve, and her perspective on case buying has changed along with it. Before, she says, a protective case meant a bulky one. “The needs of the case have changed,” she says. “Customers also demanded something they could carry in their pockets or purses.” Now, everyone wants something that not only protects their phone but also makes it special.

“As the business has grown, it’s now an extension of that customer,” she says. “They really want to personalize their phone.”

AT&T can’t fight the big-name brand machine

Unlike Elicerio, who thinks unique cases will be enough to sell customers on, Bernstein thinks buyers just want a recognizable brand name that fits with their lifestyle.

Customers won’t stray from brands they already know and love, she figures, so AT&T might as well just stock those and not even try to compete with their own case line or exclusive drops. She isn’t going to fight the brand machine. “In the last two or three years, some of the better brands [put their names on consumer electronics], so you’ll see cases from Kate Spade, Michael Kors, and Tumi,” she says. “Under Armour launched a little under a year ago, and that’s been taking some market share away.”

“The market has changed,” she says. “I don’t know that there’s one case that we would have exclusive that would get as much market share as the top sellers that are out there.”

Verizon’s Elicerio recognizes that buyers love brands, of course, but she also isn’t willing to give up her case dreams. “[A phone case] takes an iPhone that looks exactly like the millions of other iPhones in the world and makes it specifically yours,” Elicerio says. “That’s why brands like Kate Spade are in this business: because they can personalize to their customer and fulfill lifestyle needs.”

I visited an AT&T store in New York City to see its options firsthand. The case selection consisted of a few boxes hanging on a rack; most were recognizable brands. The store itself was in a basement, and again, no one was inside. It was a little depressing, to be honest. The Verizon store at least felt more alive; cases really do add some cheer to the place. But still, I left both stores feeling a little down because, ultimately, I was visiting carrier stores, and that’s no fun.