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O2 UK Deploy Secret Shoppers – Embarrass EE, Vodafone and Three

Monday, Jun 12th, 2023 (10:53 am) - Score 3,928
Contract under magnifying glass

Cheeky mobile operator O2 (Virgin Media) recently hired a team of “independent secret shoppers” to visit EE (BT), Vodafone and Three UK stores to see what contracts were available to them, which found that split contracts (i.e. separate contracts for the handset and airtime) are “harder to get hold of than some networks have customers believe.”

Firstly, a little context. Last month VMO2 published the results of a new survey, which suggested that “millions of consumers” in the UK were overpaying for their mobile phones by as much as £530m each year (here). This reflected the fact that some bundles of both mobile handsets and tariffs (airtime contracts) will continue to charge consumers for the handset, even once the minimum contract term has ended.

NOTE: The research was conducted by Proinsight Research Ltd between the 26th May to 4th June 2023, which involved visiting just 15 stores across the UK and the operators’ websites.

However, while it is true to say that many consumers remain stuck in a contract where this kind of thing can happen, VMO2’s rivals at EE, Three UK and Vodafone were still quick to point out that they do in fact now offer the option of split contracts to consumers (catch – these aren’t always the default and there’s certainly some room for improvement).

VMO2 has now taken this fight a step further by hiring a team of “professional mystery shoppers” to help them test how simple (or not) it is for consumers to take out a split contract with their rivals. The team was tasked with going onto UK high streets and operator’s websites, while posing as new customers looking to take out a contract on a new handset.

Summary of the Outcome

➤ Despite EE labelling Virgin Media O2’s campaign ‘misleading’ and claiming to offer split contracts, findings from the secret shopping visits show that when entering an EE store to enquire about a new contract, none of the secret shoppers were able to sign up to a split contract. And despite searching the EE website extensively, the expert secret shoppers were unable to find a ‘Flex Pay’ plan or any other form of split contract.

➤ Vodafone and Three fared better, with shoppers proactively offered a split contract in all Vodafone and most (80%) Three stores, as well as being available online.

➤ Staff from all providers were unable to definitively say what would happen when asked if friends who had been out of contract for a long time could still be paying for their phones, highlighting the confusion which surrounds the issue.

Naturally, this is all a bit of clever marketing, since O2 customers have been able to benefit from split contracts for more than a decade after it became the first operator to introduce these plans in 2013 (O2 Refresh). But the point they make about how easy it is to find and compare such plans does hold some water.

Gareth Turpin, Chief Commercial Officer at VMO2, said:

“It’s time for the industry to end this half a billion-pound problem by providing consumers with choice, consistency and clarity on their phone contracts. This is not about picking a fight with our competitors; it’s about increasing awareness of a key consumer issue and urging others to help solve it.

Consumers are not getting the information they need, with millions finding themselves paying twice for phones they already own. Confusion abounds, with some claiming to offer split contracts that are seemingly impossible to get hold of online or in all the stores our expert shoppers visited.

While it’s great to see more operators offering their customers split contracts, a decade on since O2 first launched these plans, we hope they’ll now join us in automatically rolling down direct customers once their device is paid for, and providing clear information when the phone is paid off to help end this smartphone swindle once and for all.”

Just to remind readers. Ofcom have already introduced (2019) a range of measures to help tackle issues like this, such as by requiring mobile operators to be more transparent about related plans (here). Sadly, this hasn’t completely resolved the issue, and Ofcom are known to be reviewing it, again. The regulator’s End-of-Contract Notification (ECN) system, which was introduced in February 2020, is another helpful tool.

The risk for VMO2 here is that their rivals might now be tempted to adopt a similar “secret shopper” approach in the future, such as when attempting to highlight an area where they may be doing poorly. Popcorn at the ready.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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18 Responses
  1. Avatar photo drevilbob says:

    I’m sick of them saying they offer split contracts because they don’t plus their phone plans can go 36 months actually stupid.

  2. Avatar photo Jonny says:

    At least with those other networks I can use mobile data at speeds greater than 8Mbps

  3. Avatar photo Michael V says:

    I think VMO2 really are taking assualt on the other three operators. Three have only this year introduced split contracts. All this is new so there’s always room for improvement. Yeah all colleagues in the stores should know the details & T&Cs, they can do better than 80%. But at least Voda and Three are giving those options. [I don’t know about EE.]
    I just think VMO2 are picking fights.

  4. Avatar photo Andy says:

    O2 are just as bad as the rest on their so called split contracts. If you take a look at the cost of their contracted airtime within the split contracts, it is far more expensive than the sim only plans. Therefore you are paying a contract premium for the airtime which will continue after the minimum 24 months.

    If they were really being truthful, they would offer the airtime part of the contract at the sim only rates.

    1. Avatar photo AndyK says:

      Exactly. They claim that their plans are interest free, but they are almost without fail way, way more expensive than the value of the phone plus the SIM Only plan value by the time the contract is up – so they are equally as much a scam as all the other “phone included” mobile plans nowadays.

  5. Avatar photo Chris says:

    Did VMO2 sponsor this post?

  6. Avatar photo dontcare says:

    o2 (virgin media) are cheeky sod – they are the same as well. No difference to EE, Three and Vodafone.

    They should BLOODY SHUT UP.

    1. Avatar photo Declan m says:

      Correct ✅

  7. Avatar photo Chris says:

    Here’s a crazy thought…

    Rather than spending money on ridiculous PR stories (I’m referring to this one and the very bizarre “GWS Name Virgin Media O2 Best Combined Mobile and WiFi Provider” last week)…

    … how about spending some money on the network.

    1. Avatar photo AndyK says:

      …presumably because they have realised they have no competence in improving the network so they’ve given up and are just getting desperate!? That’s how it feels..!

  8. Avatar photo Lee says:

    VMO2 need to grow up.
    Improve your networks and customer services first.
    Instead of stunts like this, picking non-issue as a distraction.

    Of course the other networks annoyed, VMO2 is just doing childish mud slinging.

  9. Avatar photo Sam P says:

    I’m guessing this is all they’ve got considering they’re the worst network out there. 02, how’s your 5G rollout going? How’s your 4G network coping?

  10. Avatar photo J says:

    Haha this is the funniest thing I’ve seen all day, what a shitshow of a company

  11. Avatar photo BuckleZ says:

    They need to focus more of themselves than rivals to be honest

  12. Avatar photo SM says:

    Note the mystery shoppers didn’t go to O2 shops to see if their staff were similarly clued up or not about the same split contracts…

  13. Avatar photo Jon says:

    The fact of the matter is that retail/call centre staff will always provide a highly variable level of service in this sector due to the nature of the job and how it is staffed.

    These large companies fill such positions with staff on the lowest wage they can get away with, often “incentivise” staff based purely on sales metrics, and provide nowhere near the level of training and monitoring that is required to ensure expertise is consistent with the level that should be provided when selling binding contracts that in some cases now last up to 36 months. This also contributes to high staff turnover, which just exasperates the problem.

    Add to this the fact that in stores many staff are simply not empowered to resolve issues and that these large companies have many different departments for various things, plus seemingly ever-changing processes and policies.

    I don’t think any of the major telecom providers have service that could be considered consistently excellent, and in some cases, it’s of a level they should be utterly ashamed of. But this is the same as many utility industries, and we as customers can’t do without so we just get on with it.

    Companies like VMO2 would do well to get their own house in order before attempting to boast about besting the competition.

  14. Avatar photo AndyK says:

    Convenient how they fail to mention that their “split contracts” are, almost universally, significantly more expensive than buying the phone and paying for an O2 SIM Only plan. They aren’t better value in any way whatsoever.

  15. Avatar photo Flame Henry says:

    Another day, another nonsense VM02 press release

Comments are closed

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