When it comes to the holidays, no sugarplum fairy dance can hold a candle to the jig of a disinterested shopper trying to thread her way through a mall's gantlet of carts and kiosks without making eye contact. Savvy cart proprietors know this, of course, and so have devised a detailed script -- one consultant calls it full-blown choreography -- to lure customers to their lairs of hearing aids and wallets, sunglasses and charm bracelets, slippers and hermit crabs. So the dude idly playing the finger football game at one kiosk is not some loser killing time, but a shrewd entrepreneur who understands that getting people to pause, even for a moment, gives him a chance to deliver his pitch. "And make no mistake: after hours of playing a game, you've worked," said Brady Flower, a former cart entrepreneur in Twin Cities malls who now is a kiosk consultant. The whole idea is not to be a proprietor "sitting there by yourself eating pizza and talking to your girlfriend or boyfriend on your cell phone." And we've all seen them.

Those little islands of merchandise in the midst of most malls are called carts, although many people refer to them as kiosks. In mall-speak, a kiosk is a structure that a proprietor can stand within. A cart is something that one stands alongside. Even more technically, it's a retail merchandise unit, or RMU.

Half the shoppers who browse at carts end up buying something, spending an average of $14 per visit, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. The most popular items are those that exude an aura of comfort and relaxation, perhaps tapping that subliminal desire of a shopper in mid-trudge.

Carts became an integral part of the mall experience in the 1980s when mall owners began to look across all those square feet of center court tile that weren't producing revenue. Cell phone companies and herbal diet supplements proved early successes. Carts became relatively economical ways for sellers to hawk hot trends whose lifespan wouldn't warrant a storefront.

Then came Beanie Babies and carts were never the same.

High-concept carts

Ramesh Wahi went through that phase; in fact, he just opened a Beanie Baby cart at the Mall of America, but only for the holiday season. Wahi was one of the original cart-owners at the MOA and figures he's stocked about 20 different "concepts" over the years. He has five carts at the mall now, including his flagship City Shirts cart. (Sample T-shirt: "Your lips are moving, but all I hear is blah, blah, blah."

Wahi said that would-be cart owners have to do their homework and find or invent a niche product that creates a buzz. "Nothing is 100 percent guaranteed," he cautioned. "At times, it is a bit difficult, but you have to have a positive attitude. My mother used to say, 'Every night leads to day, and every day leads to night.' You have to have a vision and be really committed to the concept."

Wahi said 70 percent of sales from his various carts are in the $20 to $50 range. He and other cart owners demurred when asked about their rental costs, although numbers published in various local publications have ranged from $2,000 a month to $50,000 a year.

Lisa Taylor, who oversees the cart program at the Mall of America, wouldn't release figures, but said they vary widely depending upon season, length of lease, and whether you're in the primo first-floor West Market or in some far-flung, upper-level corner.

Among the next generation of kiosks are self-service carts for gift cards, which are proving hugely popular. But the most frequented kiosks in any mall? You are here: Research says the ones that show all the store locations.

While it's hard to imagine how some vendors -- hermit crabs come to mind -- can make a living, Taylor said there are 65 to 80 carts at any given time and 70 percent have been there for some time. Some, such as Magnet Max, even had enough success to achieve storefront status for its novelty magnets. "There's always a waiting list," Taylor said.

New this year is a cart that stocks Crocs, those brightly colored plastic clogs, and one that sells Black & Decker tools. "The Black & Decker cart is a new concept that capitalizes on the traffic that walks through the common areas of the mall, rather than being in the back corner of Sears," Taylor said.

And that foot traffic? Forty million visitors a year.

Want a finer point on that figure? Added mall spokesman Dan Jasper: "That's more than the combined population of North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and the entire nation of Canada."

"Hi, would you like to ..."

To staff a cart apparently requires regular ingestion of caffeine, judging from the Venti coffees and giant Mountain Dew beside most cash registers. One recent morning, the crowds were slow to arrive at the Mall of America, and so proprietors spent time brushing lint from a display of wallets, re-arranging pairs of slippers or landscaping the gravel around the hermit crabs.

One young woman gamely held out a hair-straightening device toward all but the most pixie-cut women who passed by, offering them a trial smoothing. At a cosmetic booth, two women conscientiously applied makeup, hoping to lure someone into watching. Other cartrepreneurs sat as passively as the potted plants, waiting for someone to show interest in their wares.

Big mistake, Brady Flower would say. He's had carts for 10 years, starting out in Rosedale Mall selling reusable heat packs for neck and back pain. His Comfort Zone was, he says, the mall's most profitable cart his first year out. Eventually, the company asked him to train its salespeople, which led to his consulting business, the Kiosk Expert. (www.kioskexpert.com)

"How do you know what to sell?" he repeated. "You don't really know for sure. Certain types of things have shown themselves to be successful -- health items, creams, makeup. What I usually suggest is to find a concept that's a proven seller and sell that at first, so you can get a win, make some money and then evaluate if this is something where you want to keep moving forward."

Having said that, he added that the product is almost inconsequential if you don't have a proven method for selling it. "It's like a dance that you have choreographed out," he said. "You literally have to have it scripted because you only have a few seconds to stop that customer's forward motion."

In many cases, that means demonstrating your product, "because often these are items they certainly wouldn't have headed to the market to buy," Flower said.

Can you make a living? "It depends on what a living is for you," he said.

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185