When it comes to buying a cell phone, lack of choice is hardly the problem. In fact, we have so many options that the average consumer can spend hours researching the overwhelming array of available plans, phones, and carriers, or traipsing from store to store to chase down the best deal.
Mort Rosenthal thinks there's a smarter solution. In November, he launched a concept store called IMO (short for Independent Mobile) in Columbus, Ohio, to do for cell-phone shoppers what his Corporate Software did back in the 1990s for companies buying operating systems and spreadsheet packages: provide a site for vendor-neutral, multicarrier, one-stop shopping.
IMO, whose second outlet, in Boston, is scheduled to open in February, is modeled closely on the Apple Store. There are kiosks to display carrier plans and coverage, and knowledgeable sales reps who will, Rosenthal promises, even help you set up your phone afterward. An Explorer station offers a fun environment in which to learn about advanced features, such as multimedia and email.
Rosenthal thinks that mix of education, selection, and service will attract the "nirvana of wireless carriers": educated buyers with the means to spend more on a phone and service. That's one reason why the big guys are cooperating so far. Rosenthal has signed up Cingular, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. "IMO presents a win-win proposition that's hard for big carriers to resist," says Julie Ask, an analyst at Jupiter Research. Not only does it promise to help expand the base of elite customers, but it also saves carriers the estimated $450 they would spend signing up each new customer on their own. Clint Wheelock, vice president of wireless research at the NPD Group, worries that by focusing on the high end, IMO risks being undercut on price. But Ask thinks it can be profitable with just 2% of the market. Even better, IMO could prove to carriers that there's a better way to sell phones—rescuing the rest of us from the tyranny of cell-block hell.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.