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MVNO Launching Wireless Boutiques

Helio, the start-up mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), will open the first of five planned retail stores next month.

The EarthLink-SK Telecom joint venture, based here, will open its first storefront in Santa Monica, Calif., early this month, and will add four more locations in New York, Denver, San Diego and Palo Alto, Calif., later this year. Additional major market openings are planned for 2007.

The “experiential” stores will compliment Helio’s strategy of targeted distribution to help distinguish the youth- oriented service from rival MVNOs. The brand is currently carried by CE specialty chains, college book stores, music shops, wireless agent outlets, and boutiques including Strawberry’s, Wireless Toyz and Fry’s Electronics.

The Helio stores, designed by Gensler & Associates, will have a clean, ultra modern look and feature one-stop “entertainment pods” where customers can sample and purchase handsets, accessories and service plans. The stores will also be outfitted with “Q+A Bar” help desks, and staffers will be equipped with “Spa Kits” to clean and freshen customers’ devices.

The concept, said a spokesperson, is to provide a destination for Helio’s target community of well-heeled and wireless savvy 18- to 32-year-olds.