Here's a concept: Sell cell plans with a smile

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At IMO, you cozy up to the bar, grab a coffee, and tell "bartender" Brian Hicks your saddest cellphone sob story. He nods knowingly as you rant about dropped calls, snarky customer-service reps and your overage sins, like that $450 bill rung up on last summer's road trip.

Short for "independent mobile," IMO is a concept store in Columbus, Ohio, that's aimed at filling the niche between the seedy corner wireless shop and the single-choice model of carrier-run stores often marred by customer-service horror stories and legendary wait times.

"Carriers are good at building and running a network, night and day, through hurricanes and storms, that's their competency, but they are not great retailers," said IMO's founder and CEO, Mort Rosenthal, a former computer software executive.

Coffee with your Boost

IMO's design is hip, sleek and oh, so postmodern, reminiscent of an Apple Store or a trendy bar in SoHo. With a solid-surface bar stretching the store's length, complete with comfy barstools, the atmosphere is relaxed and minimalist. So-called Advisors dressed in sky-blue oxfords man the bar, offering cellphones-87 brands in all-stocked in neat, black drawers for customers to test. Flat-screen computers programmed with IMO's "informed choice" software let customers compare and contrast phones and carrier plans while they relax and sip a complimentary soda or coffee.

IMO hopes to profit from what it sees as pent-up anger against the wireless industry. J.D. Power's 2004 comparative customer satisfaction index ranked the wireless industry close to the bottom, above only the utility and travel industries.

Even though Mr. Rosenthal repeatedly criticizes this bad service at carrier-based retailers, IMO's business model relies on partnerships with the very carriers IMO is challenging, including Virgin, T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, Nextel and Boost. (Cingular is notably absent, but will be added soon, Mr. Rosenthal said.) IMO will make money from commissions paid by the carriers each time customers sign a contract or buy a phone in the store.

Mr. Rosenthal said IMO plans a Boston opening in February and a national rollout by the end of 2006. The Lexington, Mass.-based firm's financial backers include private investors and Highland Capital Partners, a Boston venture-capital firm. The board of directors includes retail heavy-hitters, including Tom Stemberg, Staples' founder, chairman emeritus and former CEO, and Roger Bergen, former CEO of The Nature Company.

Lance Mala, chief creative director at Ten United, Columbus, IMO's advertising agency, said consumer research revealed the market lacks "trust and freedom." To that end, a series of print ads drives home the independence theme, with copy like, "Say goodbye to frustration and hello to wireless bliss."

There may be angst in buying a cellphone, but activations are booming- 25.2 million for the year ended June 2005, according to the CTIA, a wireless industry trade group. Even so, some industry watchers warn the market, now with 65% penetration, according to eMarketer, could top out at 70% to 80%.

Brenda Raney, a spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless, referred to IMO as "just a different model." She said that despite thousands of resale agents and retailers already operating nationwide, Verizon still sells most of its own phones and plans.

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