The Starbucks of cell phones
Inspired by the coffee chain and Apple's stores, IMO wants to reinvent cell-phone retail.
SAN FRANCISCO (Business 2.0) - As mobile technology evolves at warp speed, cell-phone retail is stuck in the dark ages, characterized by seedy corner stores, big-box retailers, and single-carrier shops with pushy salespeople. Now IMO, short for Independent Mobile, wants to offer an upscale, lifestyle-oriented alternative.
Modeled on Apple's (Research) chain of retail stores, IMO's sleek boutiques will sell hundreds of handsets and plans from the major carriers including Cingular, Sprint Nextel (Research), Verizon Wireless, and T-Mobile. Programs running on flat-screen monitors educate customers about plans, while expert salespeople offer advice. Backed by venture capital firm Highland Capital Partners, IMO already operates a prototype store in Columbus, Ohio, and just opened a second location in Framingham, Mass.
The Columbus and Framingham stores are just the beginning, however: IMO now plans to start opening almost two stores a month, giving it as many as 60 stores nationwide by the end of 2008.
An intimate retail experience
The swift expansion plans may remind people of Starbucks (Research)預nd indeed the resemblance doesn't end there. IMO intends to compete on service, not price. And in that respect the store represents a growing trend葉he "solutions boutique," an intimate retail store selling digital goods and services with a focus on the whole experience.
In a recent research report, Forrester Research analyst Ted Schadler writes that stores like IMO will address a growing "experience gap." He says that stores lose almost $4 billion in sales annually due to the fact that retailers aren't set up to explain how today's complex consumer electronics work.
Wireless carriers, for example, forfeit $1.3 billion a year in data revenues because many their employees aren't able to explain the virtues of Web-enabled handsets, according to Schadler's report.
Cribbing from Apple
What's the answer? Look to the way Apple's stores sell iPods and Macs--not as flashy gadgets but as part of a "digital lifestyle" which includes software and online services that connect all the hardware together. Best Buy (Research) has created a store-within-a-store, Magnolia Home Theater, to sell high-end flat-screen televisions. Such "solution boutiques" could generate $13 billion in sales by 2010, Schadler estimates.
As a customer enters an IMO store, they're directed toward a long bar lined with flat-screen monitors. Running on the screens is the "IMO Advisor," a Web-based program that helps shoppers winnow down their choices based on features, price and ad even the length of their commute (a prime time to gab on the cell). Then a live IMO expert offers his or her two cents, as well as a test drive of the phones under consideration. Once they've made their choice, IMO "concierges" help set up your phone with all the bells and whistles.
Highland Capital has invested an undisclosed amount in the retail chain, which was launched entrepreneur Mort Rosenthal. Rosenthal is best known in the technology industry for founding Corporate Software, which was at one point the largest reseller of computer software in the world, with more than $1 billion in sales.
While its aggressive store-opening plan could position IMO for growth, Rosenthal is really counting on a good experience to bring back repeat customers. That, and the relentless march of technology: Doesn't it seem like your cell phone becomes obsolete every six months?
Read Business 2.0's take on America's most clever companies here.