High overhead and rising rents have driven many retailers out of business in the struggling economy. This hasn’t stopped innovative entrepreneurs from thinking outside of the box store to get their shops rolling and their products to the public. Taking a cue from the food service industry, start-up retailers are turning to trucks to house their wares and get their goods to consumers. However, the lack of regulations in place is making it difficult for some mobile retailers to get on the road to success.
Mobile retailers are on the rise across the country. Stacey Steffe, who founded the West Coast Mobile Retail Association two years ago, told the San Francisco Examiner, “I think 2013 is the year of the mobile retail truck.” Using social media to connect to clients and decking out old moving trucks to act as roving showrooms, retailers are thriving by selling everything from the latest fashion trends to personalized pet products to shoes and accessories wherever they go. The concept of stores on wheels is traveling from the west coast to the east coast and even into areas of extreme economic hardship like Michigan. Cindy Palmreuter, owner of Michigan’s re-named Double Take Mobile Resale explains to Michigan Live, “It’s less expensive and it’s less overhead.” Palmreuter ran Double Take as a brick-and-mortar secondhand clothing store for four years in downtown Rockford, MI until high rent costs and other expenses caused her to close the doors last fall. “I probably spent about $100,000 in rent there in the last four years,” she said. “You can’t sustain that business model – it doesn’t work. You have to think outside the box and that’s what I’m doing now. ”
She’s not alone. According to Steffe, 95% of mobile retailers are women like Christina Ruiz of TopShelf Boutique in San Francisco who faced many of the same challenges as Palmreuter before deciding to take her business on the road. “After many struggles with only finding unaffordable rents, difficult landlords and hurdle after hurdle to find financing, I decided to switch gears,” Ruiz stated in an email but she found switching formats came with its own set of unique challenges and sticky red tape. According to California’s current codes, mobile retail is not allowed. “They’re explicitly prohibited, and it’s a legal gray area for anything else service-related that’s not mobile food,” Office of Small Business staffer Christian Murdock explained, “But these folks are trying to do the right thing and come in and get their business vetted, regulated, so they can get up and running.”
There’s no GPS to navigate through zoning restrictions for businesses that weren’t on the radar a decade ago. Many metropolitan areas like Boston are referencing peddler’s license policies but some of those regulations haven’t been updated since the 1960s and are thought to be out-of-date and inconsistent. In an effort to be proactive Steffe, Ruiz and the American Mobile Retail Association are working to blaze a trail establishing rules and regulations for the boom of mobile businesses in a way that mobile retailers and traditional retail stores can coexist and thrive in the same market. "We're all very conscious of the potential impact to brick-and-mortar retailers and don't want to take away from them," Ruiz said. They are seeking to set up a standard that would address where trucks are allowed to operate, if chain store trucks would be regulated differently, the cost of permits and where enforcement responsibilities lie.
Some storefront locations are already on board with the idea. Mark Dwight, founder of San Francisco-based bag manufacturer Rickshaw Bagworks has a hospitable attitude towards the new businesses in his neighborhood. “We’ve had a couple [mobile retailers] out in front of my company and it generally brings in more people,” Dwight said. “It just provided another point of interest.”
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