Retail shops hit the road

  • Article by: AIMÉE BLANCHETTE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 24, 2012 - 8:44 AM

On the heels of the food truck revolution, local retail shops are packing up trucks of their own and hitting the road.

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Have goods, will travel. That's the mantra driving business for at least two retail boutiques in the Twin Cities that have found a way to reach customers while dodging the overhead costs of operating a brick and mortar store.

"It's such a no-brainer: Pack it up and put it on wheels!" said Teresa Grim, owner of the Fashion Mobile, a month-old business that sells women's clothing and accessories out of a Tiffany blue decked-out delivery truck.

In places like Los Angeles, New York and Boston, the popularity of all things mobile (food trucks, anyone?) has spilled into other categories, such as beauty, floral and fashion. Locally, retail shop owners also are starting to wonder: If burritos can be hawked from the side of an old truck, why can't bolero jackets and candlesticks?

The model seems to be working, thanks to the power of social media and the ability to reach customers whenever and almost wherever.

Just a month after opening its truck doors, the Fashion Mobile is already turning a profit. The biggest startup expense was the vehicle. Purchased for $2,600 on Craigslist, the old Chevy newspaper delivery truck cost as much as one month's rent and utilities at Grim's downtown Stillwater children and women's clothing boutique, which she was forced to close last year. Another $10,000 for a paint job, new tires and fashioning the inside to resemble the walk-in closet of a Hollywood celebrity, and the Fashion Mobile was up and running

No license available

Grim, who created the business with her husband, David, alerts customers to the Fashion Mobile's whereabouts via Twitter and Facebook. The truck makes regular appearances at festivals, private parties and community events such as White Bear Lake's Marketfest and Summer Tuesdays in Stillwater, but Grim isn't allowed to do business on public streets the way food trucks do. At least not yet.

"There hasn't been demand for this type of business in the past, but if there is, we'd be happy to create the license for it," said Robert Humphrey, spokesman for the St. Paul licensing department. "This is a new concept following the food truck trend."

The license required for mobile retail businesses doesn't yet exist, and creating one would take at least a couple of months, Humphrey said.

In Minneapolis, selling merchandise from trucks on public streets hasn't been permitted in the 30 years that Grant Wilson has worked for the city. The licenses and consumer services manager said a general merchandise ordinance would allow for a variety of products to be sold, from electronics and hardware to clothes and toys.

"I would have to do some hard thinking and looking at what other cities have allowed this and what their experiences have been," he said. "When we created the license for food trucks, we didn't anticipate having 40 trucks out there."

Angela White Smith is having plenty of luck reaching customers without the special permit.

White Smith has had enough luck with her school-bus-turned-mobile-upcycle-furniture-boutique, Uniquely Attainable, that she decided to open a bricks-and-mortar storefront in St. Paul's Lowertown.

Her biggest hurdle hasn't been the inability to park on city streets, however -- it's getting customers to understand that they can shop from inside of a bus. The "Repurbus" was purchased for $3,600 and repurposed for pennies using items that White Smith already had around her house.

The only added costs to get the bus in business was tuition for "bus driving school."

"I have an MBA. I never thought I'd be driving a bus," White Smith said. "But being able to sell from a store, the bus and online allows me to reach more people."

Customers like convenience

Susie Johnson heard about the Fashion Mobile through a friend before it ever opened and has been following the truck around the metro area by watching its Facebook updates. She shopped at Fashion Mobile on three occasions and says each time she finds different merchandise. The smaller inventory of truck-based businesses allows for frequent merchandise stock updates.

"It's just like a regular store," she said. "Even though it's in a truck, I never felt cramped inside." The truck even has a dressing room.

Short on time, Andrea Balow decided to bring the Fashion Mobile to her. The Edina mother of three hosted nearly 40 women recently who drank wine and socialized while picking out new handbags and summer dresses from the truck parked in her driveway.

"As a busy mom who loves to shop, if someone wants to bring clothes to me, I'm more than happy to let them do that," Balow said. "It's a great way to shop in a fun setting with no pressure that you often feel in regular stores."

How long the mobile shopping trend will thrive is anyone's guess. Like the fashions they're selling, retail formats change over time. The fact that the mobile retail trend is taking off doesn't surprise George John, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.

Enclosed shopping malls and the kiosks inside them are becoming stagnant, he said, forcing retailers to experiment with new ways to reach customers.

"These new mobile stores are like the kiosks in shopping malls coming back full circle," he said. "But instead of being located in one place, they can move around and experiment with different locations."

Until the Fashion Mobile can park on city streets, its owners hope to partner with other private businesses such as coffee shops or hair salons. In exchange for providing one-stop shopping for customers, including those who are already having a cup of coffee or getting their hair done, the Fashion Mobile would get a parking space in their private lots.

But the ultimate goal is to be able to do business in different locations in the two downtowns the way food trucks do.

"Cities are savvy enough to understand these trucks improve the ambience and appeal of a city," said John. "If they're willing to allow food trucks, it's simply a matter of time before they allow retail trucks, too."

Aimée Blanchette • 612-673-1715

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