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Spring 2014
Takin’ It to the Streets

Drawn by low overheads and flexible arrangements, some specialty retailers are taking their business to the streets.

Over the years, food trucks have become increasingly common on city streets. Now vendors of high fashion are finding that a mobile truck just might be the perfect vehicle for their business model. What’s more, the no-rent, low-overhead route understandably resonates with many specialty retailers. Will this business strategy work for you?

It certainly does for Adrian and Desiree Gallegos-Barragan who own and operate Denver Fashion Truck in the Mile High City. After being priced out of brick-and-mortar storefronts in Denver’s prime retail spots, the couple quickly realized that mobile was a good niche. Seeing as how the trend was on the rise across the country also gave them the confidence boost they needed to launch the business, Adrian Gallegos-Barragan says. Denver Fashion Truck sells items ranging from locally made clothing and accessories to small works of art, vintage items and apartment décor. “We stock our boutique with what we love,” he says.

Joey Wolffer and Sara Droz of The Styleliner, which does business through mobile trucks in New York City and Los Angeles, also believe in bringing interesting, one-of-a-kind accessories to their customers. “My world revolves around the idea that our customer continues to be curious and excited by what we are bringing to them whether it’s finding the chicest new designer in Paris or scouring markets across the world,” Wolffer, the business’s founder and creative director says.

Deals on wheels

DenverFashionTruck8-copyThe mobile trucks set up “shop” around the cities they work and while some businesses have run into problems with municipal codes, most have not. Adrian Gallegos-Barragan of Denver Fashion Truck says they don’t go to downtown Denver more than once a week and they make sure to follow the guidelines laid out for food trucks. “We never pop up in a similar type of business. A lot of it is based on common sense and ethics,” he adds.

Fashion Mobile, based in Stillwater, MN, did have to get a license to sell in downtown St. Paul which was time-consuming says co-owner Teresa Grim. In addition there are time restrictions—“we can only sell there during the summertime lunch hours and just pulling up somewhere and opening up the truck to sell is difficult,” Grim adds. While working on a license to sell on Minneapolis streets, the couple focuses on setting up shop at shopping events, private residences and approved festivals.

Full speed ahead

DenverFashionTruck7-copyOne would think that with such limited space, retailers would have a hard time with inventory challenges. While this is a challenge for some, many point out that you can work this to your advantage in this retail medium. “The thrill of shopping in my truck is that you never know what you’re going to find,” says Tiffany Nicole McRary of The Mobile Vintage Shop, which winds its way in Brooklyn, NY. “Everyday there is something new. Sometimes you score big. Just last week I had Fendi slacks, Gucci bags, and even YSL and Dior menswear.” McRary says the very definition of her business model—vintage for $10 or less—means that her sources are not going to have tons of stuff. This inventory “challenge” actually gets flipped on its head because it encourages customers to buy now rather than wait, she says: “If you see something you love and it’s in your size, you’re in luck.” McRary says the impermanence of the business is a major selling point. “One day I’m here, the next day I may not be. If you see something you want, you buy it now!”

Grim says she tries to flip inventory quickly anyway since one of the selling points of these trucks is that products are fresh finds. “I order when needed instead of keeping a bunch on hand to fill a whole store space,” Grim says. She adds that it’s hard to get into specific sizes so she sticks with the S-M-L model.

Styleliner9-copyAnd while one would think that customers would be uncomfortable with the impermanence of the mobile model, most seem to embrace it wholeheartedly. Social media helps create bonds. Droz of Styleline says that they post their daily locations on social media channels so customers are well aware where to find them. What’s more the truck has embraced two or three spots in each city. “If you go back to the same spots people start to feel more comfortable with your business and consider you part of the neighborhood,” Droz says. Denver Fashion Truck has a fitting room to minimize returns—they haven’t had a return yet. “We have however had a couple of exchanges in the past where the customer follows our social media post to find our next location,” Adrian Gallegos-Barragan says. “We also give our cards and send email or text receipts to our shoppers and this gives them confidence and assurance when completing transactions with us.”

Brake for challenges

Styleliner2-copyThe mobile model is not without its challenges of course. Desiree Gallegos-Barragan says parking is their biggest headache. “We are out and about popping up in different neighborhoods 4-5 days out of the week. We have to plan out beforehand what area we will try to park at and the time frame,” she says. “If we can’t find a parking spot available we have to drive around until we find a big enough spot to fit in. Denver Fashion Truck is about 20 feet long and can fit into a meter spot perfectly. We also make relationships with small business and cross-promote our businesses on social media if we park in front of their storefront.” For example, a local coffee shop, Hooked on Coalfax, will post on social media that the truck is going to be parked there on a certain day. The arrangement benefits both retailers. “We reciprocate by posting how awesome their coffee shop is and how much they support ‘local’,” she adds.

McRary says she had “a huge learning curve” with her fashion truck. “I had to learn how to drive a 34-foot rig, how to park, operate and service a generator, how to design the interior to not shift when driving, how to maximize space, how to heat and cool the inside efficiently,” she remembers. “But for me all of this was worth it. If I didn’t adapt, I’m not sure I’d be in business today.”

Ultimate in mobile

Styleliner5-copyWhile mobile fashion trucks are trending up, Karen Clement takes things one step further and actually brings spa services to customers with her Hampton Organic Beauty Bus. “We are the Hamptons’ first organic and mobile spa,” she says, “think of it as a beauty bus.” Working in the Hamptons, the season is short and the driving is difficult but Clement says her business has achieved outstanding success. “After a nice, relaxing massage you can just be at your porch or wherever, you don’t have to then get in your car and drive back,” Clement points out. She sees that the future of the spa business lies in this personalized delivery approach and argues that even if the Hamptons is an upscale resort area, the model could work anywhere—with some modifications.

Her fellow retailers agree. “A mobile truck can go to where people play and work,” Grim points out, which is a huge advantage.

“We foresee it becoming a solid business model for business of many types but keep in mind not everyone can do this type of business,” Adrian Gallegos-Barragan points out. “Not only do you have to be merchandisers and aesthetically pleasing you also have to be a little crazy. Parking, traffic, set-ups and breakdowns are challenging and time-consuming.”

Yet the model holds tremendous appeal for many. As McRary says, “You can sell pretty much anything in a mobile shop that you would in a regular one—as long as it fits inside.”

Poornima Apte

Poornima Apte is a Boston-area freelance writer and editor specializing in retail and the book publishing industry. Learn more at wordcumulus.wordpress.com.
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