Mobile trucks are selling more than food these days. Can they be an effective complement to your specialty retail operation?
Move over cupcakes, pizzas and tacos. Dresses, school supplies, flowers and more are now being sold out of trucks too.
Operating with a lower overhead than a brick-and-mortar location—and with the ability to come to customers instead of raking out thousands of dollars for advertising—mobile retail businesses are gaining speed. Thanks to free social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, customers are informed about the shops’ locations each week.
Cordie Jasinsky drives around San Antonio and Austin, TX, in a converted 1940s trailer with red lettering laid over a silver exterior. Her business, The Gypsy Couture, debuted in 2009 and sells clothing for women that’s, according to Jasinsky, a refreshing departure from mall labels. The trailer even has a dressing room to accommodate buyers who might want to try out outfits before buying them.
Game Truck—housed in a trailer attached to a pick-up truck—delivers game consoles like Wii, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 for use during parties. The business is based on founder and CEO Scott Novis’ business model; renting Game Truck costs between $300 and $400 for the first two hours, and $100 for each additional hour. The business is based in Tempe, AZ, but has additional locations in Fort Lauderdale, FL and Des Moines, Iowa.
Food truck spinoffs
Catchy slogans and colorful images emblazoned on trucks are key to capturing the attention of potential customers, just as food trucks have done for many years since appearing in cities like Portland, OR; Los Angeles and New York City.
In fact, it was the recent success of food trucks—in particular, their fun graphics and creative concepts—that inspired Jennifer Kaplan of Los Angeles to invest her 20-plus years of experience owning and managing brick-and-mortar shops, into a mobile business. Kaplan bought a 1971 Dodge truck, formerly an ice cream van, and converted it into The Flower Truck just in time for Valentine’s Day 2011.
Kaplan’s experience selling women’s fashions and creating displays in stores comes in handy when planning merchandising of the flowers in the truck. Bouquets of fresh-cut flowers are arranged in tall, thin silver canisters along one interior wall. She increased her bouquet arrangement skills by reading books and taking classes in floral design.
Since appearance is everything, especially for a mobile business, Kaplan made sure the truck’s graphics really stood out. Floral graphics are splashed against a white background on all four sides of the truck. “My vision was this drop-dead truck driving down the street,” Kaplan says. “I’ve thought about color and all that—you try to create a feeling and a vibe.”
Le Fashion Truck, another mobile business that cruises around Los Angeles, mimics a walk-in closet. A former dry-cleaning truck, the rods that once held dress shirts and pants inside the 1974 box truck were removed. Shelving and wallpaper were added and women’s apparel and accessories were thoughtfully arranged in the new space. Taking the business into the truck was “the next step” after hosting Le Fashion Truck’s online presence. “L.A. is just so saturated with fashion designers. The mobile food trucks exploded here and it was inspiring,” says Jeanine Romo, co-founder of Le Fashion Truck.
Don Rich began Skullastic as an online venture three years ago. The business sells school supplies and T-shirts coupled with a message to encourage kids to stay in school. After $40,000 in remodeling a 17-foot school bus—a mobile arm of his business—is now ready to hit the road.
Why mobile pays
The most obvious advantage of a mobile operation is its portability. With the pick-up-and-go model of a mobile business, you go directly to the customer. That’s worked well for Kaplan because bunches of flowers are considered an impulse purchase. So she parks in areas with high foot traffic.
If location presents a problem, a mobile truck can recalibrate quickly. Mobile retail can adjust if a certain intersection, part of town or regular event just isn’t pulling in sales. “You get to pick up your business and take it to so many pockets and sections that you might not normally see,” Romo says.
The no-frills, no-fuss aspect of a mobile business is appealing to many entrepreneurs who are itching to get up and running. “When I take the bus, I basically pull up, open the door and I’m ready to go,” says Rich.
Rich hesitates to open a brick-and-mortar store not just for the cost of doing so but for the maintenance and upkeep. “With brick-and-mortar locations you’ve got to worry about people breaking windows and the air-conditioning not working,” says Rich. He acknowledges the do-or-die aspect of a mobile business as well: “If I can’t turn on my ignition, I’m out of business.”
Advertising works differently too. After all, with a mobile unit, the truck itself is a sharp advertisement for your business. “Just driving down the street I’m seen by people who would normally not see me. My truck is my biggest advertisement,” Kaplan says.
“It’s so exciting to drive around town and see people’s reaction to this,” says Rich, about his Skulltastic truck, essentially a business advertisement on wheels.
Romo cites large national retailers like Marshalls, along with national brands ranging from the Idaho Potato Commission’s Famous Idaho potatoes to Oscar Mayer wieners, who embark on short-term cross-country drives, as examples of how to use a truck as part of a promotional campaign.
Of course you can’t take your mobile truck just anywhere. Local zoning and business laws must be followed. Stacey Steffe is co-founder with Jeanine Romo of West Coast Mobile Retail Association, which helps mobile business owners collaborate on ideas. She says that each city has its own set of codes, some of which are stricter than those of food trucks. Boston, Los Angeles and others allow street peddling as long as you are licensed and/or permitted in that city. It truly varies according to city, Steffe says. Even with all the excitement over mobile retail businesses, there is still no legislation governing them at the state or national level.
Steffe says the mobile association, which plans on national expansion, receives emails daily from people around the country asking how to start a mobile business. Some are simply wondering how to convert an RV or other vehicle into a retail shop. Steffe estimates that the cost for a box truck, which is often listed on Auto Trader, eBay and Craigslist, is between $5,000 and $15,000.
Recognizing that most people are still not familiar with this business model, and that in this case it’s okay to walk into a parked vehicle, Rich provides context by standing outside the bus wearing a white lab coat and scientist goggles. Sometimes, “zombie cheerleaders” he’s hired will join him. “It’s such a
new category for people—they still don’t get it.”
Due to limited space, handling inventory is a challenge for businesses on wheels. Le Fashion Truck’s owners go on a buying trip every two weeks to restock inventory, which is stored at their office or in the cab of the truck (not accessible to buyers). It tends to turn over very quickly. Steffe and Romo tout a new mantra to address the “just sold out” issue: “You should have bought it when you had it,” jokes Steffe, who won’t hesitate to tell this to customers with a smile when they inquire about an item that just sold to someone else.
Hideaway cabinets help store necessary supplies. “We really have a full-functioning store and a mini office,” says Steffe. “We’re trying to run a true business.”
“There are a lot of things you have to do with a moving vehicle. You don’t want stuff flying around the back,” says Rich, who with the help of a company that worked on vehicles used in the films Ghostbusters and Fast and Furious, engineered latches on compartments within the truck that hold extra supplies in case he’s hit with a rush of customers.
However, the alternative—not moving the inventory—is worse. “If I fill up my truck with flowers and run out, it was a great day and I get to go home,” says Kaplan, who has seen first-hand the shift in flower purchases. What used to be considered a luxury item is now akin to groceries. “Flowers are such an inexpensive way to change your mood.”
But just in case, Kaplan has a lot of refrigeration units in her home because flowers are perishable. She brings unsold bouquets to nursing homes, offers them for free, and makes a sales pitch at the front desk.
Return policies can be a challenge when the location of the business is constantly changing. If a customer bought a dress in one town, but once home discovered it’s too snug of a fit, she might not want to drive to the next town to exchange it.
Le Fashion Truck’s return policy is such that an item can be returned within four days with a receipt, or for store credit thereafter. “We explain to customers that we’re always on the move,” says Romo. Customers can follow the truck’s Twitter feed and Facebook status updates to find out where they will be next.
Just because a business is mobile doesn’t mean it can’t expand. In early May, Kaplan hired her first two employees with hopes to have them drive the truck when she can’t. This will increase the number of hours she’s open for business. “A regular schedule is going to be huge,” she says. “Once people know they can count on it, they’ll wait to get their flowers.”
Rich recently hired an accountant to assist with bookkeeping and free him up to drive around town more.
In January Kaplan began offering licensing opportunities of The Flower Truck concept. “The long-term goal is that I’ve got trucks in several cities, with a few trucks in L.A. and a shop I can work out [of] for events like weddings and showers,” says Kaplan.
Hit the road
Specialty retailers can work this model too, says Julia Hutton founder of Extreme ReTrailers, a business that helps retailers outfit their mobile trucks in keeping with their marketing model and message. The company takes a raw trailer and “themes it out according to our client’s wishes,” Hutton says. She adds that a mobile truck can be a complement to any brick-and-mortar business as well. “It is a rolling billboard and a huge value to the business [you] own,” she says. Consider distributing coupons and fliers that invite customers you meet on the road, to your specialty retail mall location. The energy from one location can drive business to the other, she adds.
With relatively low startup costs, budding businesses might do well to look at a mobile retail operation. A mobile truck might just well be the perfect complement for your specialty retail operation.