In Store for Wireless Customers: Apple-like Stores

Posted by: Olga Kharif on July 10, 2005

Some pretty important people — Mort Rosenthal, the founder of Corporate Software, at one point the world’s largest PC software distributor, and Staples founder Tom Stemberg — are plotting a new kind of a wireless venture. A wireless reseller, to be exact.

While that might seem like an old idea (I tend to think of wireless resellers as those dingy stores, selling pocket knives in addition to a handful of cell phones), this new venture, called imo (independent mobile) will be different. Rosenthal says his stores, due to open in the fall, will offer an Apple-store-like experience. And if that’s the case, I think he is on to something.

If you are like me, you'd visited all U.S. wireless service providers' stores before picking your wireless plan. That meant visiting five different stores, then struggling to compare plans and pick one out of more than 300 currently available. Then, you had to decide on one of about 120 phones that come with the plans.

Clearly, Rosenthal says, signing up for wireless plans takes too much work.

That's where imo comes in. Unlike most other wireless resellers, the outfit will sell all of the wireless service providers' 300-plus plans. It will carry all of their phones. It will charge the same prices that the carriers will offer in their own stores, says Rosenthal. Basically, imo will be a one-stop wireless shop, which will help consumers to make their choices in less time.

The first two to four imo stores that will debut this fall in Ohio and Boston will feature "explorer areas," where customers will be able to test various services and gadgets. There might be a display, for example, where consumers will be able to play with mobile video services and cell phones with music capabilities.

After you are done with playing, you can walk up to a special bar-like counter, where you and a salesperson can search the store's database to pick a wireless plan that's right for you. Then, while your phone is being activated, another salesperson will walk you through all of your phone's functionalities.

This Apple-like sleek look, feel and service could, potentially, make this company, funded by venture capital firm Highland Capital Partners, a run-away success. Indeed, Rosenthal, imo's founder, and Stemberg, its board member, believe they will take the business nationwide within a couple of years.

If this venture takes off, it could, potentially, change the wireless industry dramatically. It could force carriers to compete more head to head. Ditto for cell phone manufacturers.

Most importantly, imo could, perhaps, improve the typically bad service one has to put up with at wireless service providers' own stores.

I guess we'll need to wait and see... The imo Web site is yet to be launched, and the stores are yet to be opened.

Reader Comments

Patrick Hickey

July 10, 2005 7:23 AM

Carphone Warehouse have been doing this in the UK and Europe for several years. Whats new?
Check it out: http://www.carphonewarehouse.com

michael stewart

July 10, 2005 7:48 AM

olga......

are those stores going to have the same idiots trying to sell you stuff they are clueless about??????

the best test is to see if any of them can tell you which cellular carrier has data coverage in saint ansgar, iowa.......

Ron David

July 11, 2005 4:03 AM

If they have the same experience as an Apple store, their employees will know everything about every product they sell. With the growth of new cell phone services (Disney for sure, Apple and other companies possibly) the "one stop shop" is a great idea.

amanda

July 11, 2005 1:15 PM

hmmm... i have had multiple bad experiences with the so-called "geniuses" at the apple store's genius bar. i would probably prefer a web site with comprehensive information on all of the wireless plans to having to rely on in-store sales people.

Silversmith

July 11, 2005 8:10 PM

There's already an organization that's done this - it's called Wal-Mart. Their "Connection Centers" are generally better in most places than the individual providers stores, since their employees don't work on a commission basis. I'm not going to say that EVERY Wal-Mart has a Connection Center that's worth a damn - no company on the planet gets it right at every location, all the time. However, in my experience, as a Tech Consultant stuck in Red-Land hell, the Wal-Mart CC folks usually know more than the individual company reps, and often, they know local info like "...which cellular carrier has data coverage in saint ansgar, iowa..." (as michael stewart put it).

The more players in the cell phone business like this, the better. Optimally, the cell carriers themselves wouldn't mind not having to support a local physical presence anyway. From an executive's standpoint, this venture - if successful - would sound like another great reason to cut overhead. In other words, let someone other than the carrier have to deal with the customer directly.

Potentially good for all sides - as long as the customer remains the focus ahead of the bottom line. After all, with the lousy customer service history of cell phone providers in the U.S., if the "it" is a high-quality, local, on-site, cellular buying experience, then "if you build it, they will come" doesn't seem that far fetched.

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Bloomberg Businessweek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, and Douglas MacMillan, dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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