Mobile_Businesses_body.jpgby Erin Perry O’Donnell.

Lunch isn’t the only thing you can buy from a truck these days. Entrepreneurs are taking retail and services to the streets, too.

Clothing, shoes, jewelry, even haircuts and flowers are now available from a growing fleet of mobile boutiques, also known as pop-up stores. The American Mobile Retail Association (AMRA) estimates more than 500 non-food trucks are in business nationwide—about five times more than there were in 2011.

The overwhelming majority of these mobile businesses sell clothing, shoes, and accessories, but others deal in vintage items, pet products, kitchen and housewares, beauty products, and novelty gifts. There are some very narrow fashion niches, too. On the East Coast, the Arden Reed Tailor Truck totes around a 3D body scanner to custom-fit men’s suits in less than 10 minutes. Mobile shops for bathing suits and shoes are popping up, too.

AMRA co-founder Stacey Steffe says mobile businesses are more than a trend—they represent a new business model. The average startup cost is relatively low, around $20,000, and so is overhead. All you need to process transactions is a tablet or smartphone. And mobility makes it much easier to target customers, Steffe says.

“I’ve been able to take my own truck into locations I could never afford to have a brick and mortar store,” Steffe says. “I get to have a presence in these areas but not have to pay the premium.”


Hitting the road

Steffe started her business, Le Fashion Truck, in Los Angeles in January 2011 with partner Jeanine Romo. They met as fellow vendors at an arts and crafts market. At the time, food trucks were all the rage, and the partners thought that also seemed like a good template for selling clothes and accessories. Soon their little pink truck was rolling through Los Angeles selling clothing by emerging designers, handmade jewelry, handbags, and accessories, most with price points under $100. Steffe says she keeps her prices affordable because shoppers don’t expect to pay much for items they’re buying off a truck.

“We were all so new at the time that a lot of events didn’t know what to do with us,” Steffe says. “We had tried joining a food truck association, and they denied us because we weren’t selling food. We liked what they were doing, so we banded together.”

They also inspired other vendors across the country. Emily Benson had been working in merchandising for a number of years when she was laid off in 2011. By June, she was piloting The Fashion Truck through the streets of Boston.

About half of mobile retailers are first-time business owners like Benson. The truck seemed like a reasonable risk, she says. “I was scared to open a brick and mortar store,” Benson adds. “But I figured a truck would be more doable because I wouldn’t have to find a location to rent.”

Mobile_Businesses_PQ.jpgSetting up shop

Retail trucks have flourished at special events and open-air markets. They’re also in demand for booking at private parties and corporate events. Steffe says the first thing mobile merchants must do is learn the law for every city where they plan to do business. In L.A., for instance, retail trucks cannot park on public streets. In nearby Santa Monica, they can, but only if they have a peddler’s permit.

Jenifer Kaplan sets up The Flower Truck outside hospitals, graduations, and even real estate open houses in the Los Angeles area. The Original Mobile Barbershop, also in southern California, sometimes arranges to park near military bases.

Benson says the novelty factor drives a lot of business. When people see the truck, she says, they feel compelled to stop in before she drives away. “The truck is super targeted. My customer is already there. She doesn’t have to try that hard to come in,” Benson says.

Kaplan, who sells fresh-cut bouquets from The Flower Truck, says she looks for areas with a lot of foot traffic. She started on Valentine’s Day in 2011 with a 1971 Dodge truck she bought for $1,000.

“Out of the gate I had an unbelievably positive response,” she says.

Social media plays a critical role in mobile retail. Customers rely on Facebook and Twitter updates to find the trucks. Steffe says mobile retail is highly visual, and business owners use a lot of photos to promote the arrival of new merchandise.

Collaborative effort

As they gain a following, some trucks are able to set up a “residency,” parking in the same spot on certain days, to make it easier for customers to find them. Steffe says many trucks benefit from doing this as a business-to-business collaboration. Setting up outside a salon or hotel, for instance, can help those businesses draw customers and raise the truck’s profile at the same time. Le Fashion Truck has a regular event every second Friday of the month in West Los Angeles. Last year, Benson had a standing weekly arrangement in Boston’s financial district.

Many mobile merchants have also discovered the benefits of banding together with other trucks. Steffe says most trucks are so specialized that collaboration is complementary, not competitive.

“It creates a fun shopping environment,” she says. “Customers say, ‘I’m going to buy something from every single truck.’ I love when trucks collaborate; we’ve done that ever since another truck came out in our town.”

Branching out

Some mobile retailers have used their trucks as a springboard to launch a broader brand. Kaplan offers licensing for other entrepreneurs to start their own version of The Flower Truck. The turnkey package comes with an outfitted truck, use of The Flower Truck trademark and brand identity, online marketing, and a social media presence.

Others have parlayed their success back into a traditional brick and mortar store. Benson admits she had mixed feelings about it. “I didn’t want to be stuck in one place,” she says. But a space opened up at a location she loved in her hometown of Westford, Massachusetts, so she debuted The Fashion Truck on Main last November.

The boutique is a different income model, Benson says. She can stay open more days a week, but there are days she doesn’t make any money. Still, she likes that she can spend more time with customers in the store to help women style their look. On the truck, she sells something every time she goes out. That’s how she built the capital to open the boutique, a goal that many mobile merchants have from the start. But Benson says it also gave her something else: “I needed the truck to give me the confidence that I could have a store.”