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Telecom gadgets fill shelves at retail superstores

Firms that sell telecommunications equipment and services are increasingly turning to discount retail stores to sell their wares--a sign that these technologies have gone mainstream.

Shoppers at the local retail superstore will soon make their way through an express checkout line with shampoo, socks, and satellite TV service.

Firms that sell mobile phones or other telecommunications equipment and services are increasingly turning to national discount retail stores to sell their wares--a sign that these once niche technologies have made it into the mainstream.

Eager to gain a wider market for its satellite television service, EchoStar Communications, the nation's second-largest direct broadcast satellite operator, EchoStar DISHplayer announced yesterday it will sell its Dish Network equipment and services in nearly 900 Target stores nationwide.

"We're trying to be viewed not as a niche product, but more as a mainstream product. So by being in a Target...that's exactly what we are," said Scott Landers, director of customer marketing for EchoStar. "Now that the adoption of the technology is widely available, it's good for us to be in mass-market retail outlets."

Over the years, prices for communications equipment and services--such as cell phones, satellite TVs, and Internet access--have become more affordable for the average family. As a result, providers are aggressively targeting those families where they typically shop.

Analysts said pushing communications products and services into one-stop retail shops has several advantages.

"The first rationale is just visibility," said Steve Baker, an analyst at PC Data, a technology market research firm. "Whatever you put in there will be seen by the millions and millions of people that go through the mass merchants each year."

Until recently, communications products were typically the purview of specialty electronics stores such as The Good Guys, Circuit City, and RadioShack or Best Buy. But EchoStar's Target deal is the latest example of communications equipment being sold on shelves in mass-market consumer retail stores that offer groceries and clothes in addition to electronics.

"There's a lot of places where there's a Wal-Mart but there's not a Circuit City," Baker said.

Microsoft recently began offering a discounted three-month package of co-branded MSN Internet Access dial-up service with Costco, one of the nation's leading warehouse club store retailers, best known for its bulk food. EchoStar also sells its equipment in warehouse club stores--including Sam's Club--that typically carry cellular phones, personal computers, and other electronic equipment.

Wal-Mart, one of the nation's largest brick-and-mortar retailers, offers cellular phones and service through partnerships with Alltel and others, according to a spokeswoman. The cellular service provider operates a small in-store kiosk, manned all day by a salesperson. More than half of Wal-Mart's nearly 2,500 stores around the country has cell phone kiosks, according to the company.

"We view Wal-Mart as a strategic partner simply due to the fact that they have lots of store traffic. It's basically America," said Randy Pierce, staff director of national distribution for Alltel. "It really does bring it to folks that five years ago wouldn't have had cellular service."

Some Silicon Valley-area Mac Frugal's Bargains Close-Outs stores also carry WebTV Networks equipment alongside its large selection of snack foods and other miscellaneous household items. The WebTV units, which are being sold at Mac Frugal's for $150, allow users to surf the Internet through a television set.

Although communications companies are now targeting the discount retailers, marketing executives and analysts say telecommunications gadgets are far from impulse buys--like chewing gum or candy at the supermarket checkout. As such purchases are often seen as investments, consumers often spend weeks or months weighing the benefits of a buy.

"I don't think the purchase process is an impulse, but when [consumers] go to buy, they buy what is at hand," said EchoStar's Landers. "It's my job to make sure my brand is in front of them when they buy."

Putting cell phones, satellite television equipment, or TV-based Net surfing units in stores is only the latest way to reach consumers, some say.

"They're looking for ways to tap audiences that may not have responded to other sales and marketing methods," said Sean Kaldor, vice president of consumer systems research at International Data Corporation. "When AT&T calls you at home during dinner to switch long distance companies, you're not in a buying mode. When you're in a store your natural impulse is to make a decision and purchase.

"I think we'll see more of it but I don't think it will overtake traditional sales methods," Kaldor said.