August 14, 2006 2:37 PM PDT

Helio to open retail stores

Helio, a wireless service designed for young hipsters, is getting ready to open several retail stores before the end of the year in major cities across the U.S.

The first store will open in Santa Monica, Calif., in October. Four others will follow in New York, Denver, San Diego and Palo Alto, Calif., by the end of the year, the company said.

Helio, which is owned jointly by EarthLink and SK Telecom of South Korea, is an MVNO, or mobile virtual network operator. Instead of owning its network, the company leases wireless capacity from Sprint Nextel to deliver its service. On top of its basic cell phone service, Helio has built features, such as games, music and video, to appeal to a niche market of young, big spenders. The company also has introduced two new handsets into the market, the Hero, which costs $275, and the Kickflip for $250.

MVNOs have become popular in the past year, as big brands develop new mobile services to target narrow market segments that the larger mobile phone carriers aren't reaching. Other MVNOs, such as ESPN Mobile and Disney Mobile, already have well-established brand recognition to help bring in customers, but Helio is starting from scratch. The company sees its retail stores as a way to grow brand recognition.

"The stores are the embodiment of the brand and act as a billboard for Helio," said Jackie Foo, senior director of retail stores for Helio. "It offers consumers a different cell phone experience that's more aligned with a fashion boutique than a consumer electronics store."

The retail stores will feature lounges and "entertainment pods" where consumers can sample Helio devices and services, configure their phones, and purchase devices using automated touch screens without waiting in long lines. The stores will also feature a "Q&A bar," where Helio subscribers can get free help with their phones and use "spa kits" to clean and retouch their devices.

The stores also will be a place where Helio users can come and hang out. Shoppers will be encouraged to play video games, watch videos or check their MySpace.com accounts.

"The store is about starting a relationship with customers," Foo said. "We are creating a community atmosphere. We want people to stay and love their devices."

Helio currently sells its phones and service online and through a variety of traditional retail channels. By the end of August, the company will be in more than 2,000 retail locations, including traditional consumer electronics stores such as Fry's Electronics, as well as in record stores, campus bookstores and fashion boutiques.

The "Helio lifestyle" doesn't come cheap. Its phone subscription rates start at $65 a month for 500 minutes of talk time. Some competitors sell the same amount of minutes for about $40 a month.

See more CNET content tagged:
Helio, brand recognition, retailer, consumer electronics, EarthLink Inc.

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Helio $65 plan
Helio's $65 plan includes 500 anytime minutes, unlimited nights/weekend minutes, unlimited internet access, unlimted video on demand, unlimited text/picture/video messaging, unlimited myspace access, and unlimited internationaly SMS. Other competitors charge $80 and up for similiar services. Do the math. :0)
Posted by eddieong2000 (1 comment )
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I picked up my Helio phone from our local dealer at the Tysons Corner Mall ( http://www.dchelio.com ) and they were very helpful. It seems like Helio does not have a lot of wireless locations, but the one I did go to at Tyson's Corner Mall was really helpful and they took care of everything I was looking for in a professional manner and even walked me through the different features as well which was a nice change from the typical wireless place where it's sell sell sell.
Posted by Pretty_Prue (11 comments )
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