If you haven't seen the light blue, plum or yellow Volkswagen Beetles cruising around town, it's only a matter of time.
AT&T has launched a new wireless service called Aio that offers customers no-contract, unlimited talk, text and data plans. The Georgia-based company chose Tampa, Orlando and Houston as its first test markets and has been marketing the brand aggressively in the Tampa Bay area through the cars, billboards and media ads.
Since May 9, Aio (pronounced AY-oh) has opened eight regional stores and plans several more in the next few weeks. Two are within 2 miles of each other along Fowler Avenue near the University of South Florida in Tampa. Others are in Largo, Riverview and Temple Terrace.
In all, look for about 60 Tampa Bay stores in the not-so-distant future and hundreds nationwide, if not more, in the next few years. Basically, the company wants to cover the country as quickly as it can.
Driving the urgency is the growing trend toward no-contract plans, such as the ones T-Mobile launched earlier this year with much success. Aio president Jennifer Van Buskirk said no-contract plans are a fast-growing segment in the wireless industry and are expected to grow 9 percent over the next three years.
"People don't want to be tied down," she said. "They want flexibility and to be in control."
Aio spent more than a year talking to wireless customers about their likes and dislikes about cellphone plans.
"They want simple, easy plan choices with unlimited offers, first-class service at affordable prices, great devices, nationwide voice and data coverage, and no annual contracts," Van Buskirk said.
Aio adopted a simple approach when starting the company from scratch, using funding from parent company AT&T. The stores are bright and airy — almost Apple-like — with wireless plan information posted on the walls and a small coloring area for kids. A huge map shows Aio's coverage area — most of the United States.
The store has three unlimited talk, text and data rate plans ranging from $40 to $70 per month, depending on the data allotment desired. Customers can buy a phone or bring their own. Scanning an oversized QR code on the wall shows whether a phone is compatible with the Aio network and what its trade-in value would be.
To avoid overwhelming people with too many choices, Aio sells only about a dozen kinds of phones and a few tablets. Because Aio requires no contract, devices are full-priced, meaning an iPhone 5 will set you back $649.99. So far, the most popular has been the Samsung Galaxy Amp, which retails for $99.99.
Depending on availability, some stores sell reconditioned phones for less. At this point, Aio doesn't have AT&T's popular 4G LTE technology for faster mobile broadband speeds.
Aio chose Tampa as a test market based on its growing population and strong interest in no-contract plans. It didn't hurt that Van Buskirk had been a vice president for AT&T covering most of Florida.
All of the stores are owned by independent dealers. Aio cars go around to events and festivals, handing out company swag and spreading the word.
Even the name itself reflects the company's belief that customers should be able to dictate their own wireless plan. In Latin, Aio loosely means "I say."
Susan Thurston can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 225-3110.