17 Jan 2018
Boutique on Wheels

Fashion Boutiques On Wheels Are Retail’s Answer To Food Trucks

This article from the Huffington Post states:

Those of us that live in cities in the United States have had front row seats to food truck phenomenon. During the luncheon hours it’s easy to find any number of vans and trucks selling tacos, Thai noodles, falafel, BBQ, and of course ice cream—last week there was even a van parked in front of Forbes New York HQ selling doughnuts.

But trucks patrolling the streets of American cities are not only slinging hash, they’re hocking fashion. These unique entrepreneurs are taking a proactive approach to making sidewalk shoppers look good.

These days a number of cities boast vans and trucks that sell clothing and accessories. Around Chicago, on-street fashionistas may run into Fashion In Motion, a mobile shopping boutique run by Gina Crater-Lilja. “When you come home from work, a lot of women don’t have time to shop,” Crater Lilja told The Daily Herald. “So to fill that need for women who love the opportunity to get stylish clothes from a boutique, and do it on a lunch break, we decided to do this.”

In Boston, one entrepreneur that’s made a business put of a boutique on wheels is Emily Benson. Following her college graduation, a love of fashion mixed with inspiration from New York City’s food truck culture and Benson decided to move back to her native Boston to set up her own business. Her fashion truck – which she appropriately calls The Fashion Truck – first hit the streets in June of 2011.

All apparel and accessories Benson sells are under $100, according to her site, and she has begun offering a monthly class on how to make a profit as a “mobile retail business.”

In Pittsburg, Cailey Breneman decided to go mobile due to her boredom with malls and shops. Last month she kicked off her new business – a van full of apparel and accessories called Roadie – in the city’s Strip District. Breneman offers vintage and contemporary clothing plus accessories. When her vehicle is parked she lays out the clothing on racks so people can browse.

New York City’s Harlem neighborhood is also getting on the mobile boutique trend. Fashion entrepreneur Nneka Green-Ingram has laid claim to a spot on 125th Street and Lenox Avenue to park her Celebrities Mobile Boutique. Every item Green Ingram sells is between $5 and $30 and she also offers $40 makeovers.

Former owner of Soho’s The Garment Room, Tiffany Nicole McCrary has set up a mobile outpost in the latest of many hip Brooklyn neighborhoods to rollerskate its way into the spotlight. In Bushwick, across from the now legendary Roberta’s Pizza restaurant, the $10 or less Mobile Vintage Shop has been hocking vintage garb, receiving attention from local newspapers in the process.

How I started my fashion truck

Truckshop - Mobile boutique trailer

By Ashley Volbrecht, owner of Truckshop

The things you think will be so easy are sometimes the hardest—like buying a truck.

I was in Los Angeles for a friend’s wedding when I saw it. The truck. It was antique-y and sort of vintage, with barebones merchandise inside, and I just wanted to take it and put it on steroids. I remember thinking, “There’s so much that can be done to this.”

I couldn’t stop obsessing over the concept of a mobile fashion boutique, infused with a certain style I felt was missing in the Midwest, where I live. I thought about all the things I’d do differently—what I would sell, how I would brand it, what I would do on social media. Of course, it’s one thing to think it. It’s another thing to go out and find the confidence to pursue your dreams.

But I knew people had always liked how I dress. I’ve gotten compliments. And for me, style has never been about materialism. I grew up very middle class. We never had designer labels—that whole world just never existed. It was the mall, and finding your own style in those stores. You had to be creative. I come at style from a consumer’s point of view. I’m a natural shopper, but I wanted to do something more than shop.

I decided to start my fashion truck.

The truck was the most important part of launching the business. It took about six months to find the right truck. I searched first locally in Cincinnati, thinking it would be super easy. But as time went on, I discovered there were so many horrible trucks out there. I went from looking in Cincinnati, to greater Ohio, to Kentucky, and at one point I found a truck in Chicago that I liked.

One of the best things somebody told me was that when you’re buying a used truck, you have to take it to a mechanic to have it looked at from a third party for an unbiased opinion. And it turned out that the truck I wanted had all of these problems hidden behind it.

So about six months from initial start point, I found a truck on Craigslist in Kentucky. It had no pictures, and it had a tiny description, but I emailed the guy and asked for photos. He had a really good price on it, so my dad and I went to check it out. Awesome condition, and that was the one. A couple weeks after Christmas, we bought it and drove it home to Cincinnati.

Buying Merchandise

I knew I wanted to open my truck that summer, and in the fashion world, it’s not as if you can get your clothing and jewelry two weeks before. You have to think about it very far in advance. I had to start thinking about what I wanted to put in the truck before I even knew what the truck was going to look like.

Around February, I had done my research, and I knew there was a big trade show twice a year called The Magic Market. Anyone from a Nordstrom buyer all the way to a little boutique in Iowa can go to these trade shows. I registered to go, but I had a full-time job, so I didn’t know if I could take the vacation time. Work was crazy that week, and the show started on a Wednesday. I packed my luggage Tuesday night, even though I didn’t have a plane ticket. I thought, “Well, if fares are good on Wednesday, I’m just going to do it and take a vacation day.”

I was hesitant to leave. But fares looked good, and I bought a ticket for that night. I had my coworker go to my apartment, get the luggage I had packed, bring it to my office, and by 4 p.m., I was on my way to the airport in Dayton. I hopped on the plane, arrived in Vegas at midnight, and was at the show by 8 a.m.

That first show, for me, was like going to college and hoping you won’t be the uncool kid. I was very, very intimidated by the market and buyers in general, because I truly believed you needed to be a big, established retailer to be taken seriously. And what I found was just the opposite. It’s just hundreds of brands and thousands of pieces of clothing, and it’s the biggest adrenaline rush. Hands down, it remains my favorite part of the job.

The clothes come from all over. I handpick all the brands and all the designs. A lot of the clothes in Truckshop come from Los Angeles. I go to all the big trade shows in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Dallas, and Atlanta. I tend to go more for the West Coast shows. They have a lot of young, fun brands for good prices.

I’m inspired by a Southern Preppy feel. Polka dots, stripes, pretty patterns, and bows. Things that are really feminine but have a cool twist. Bright and colorful, like my truck. I look at everything, every single piece, and think really quickly. I either like it, or I instantly don’t. I pick out things that I would wear, because that’s why I started my own business. I wanted everything in the truck to be my personal style.

Finding Investors

Finding investors was the easiest part. I decided not to have any.

In fact, I didn’t tell a lot of people I was opening a fashion truck. I didn’t want anyone to steal my idea, and I didn’t want to be influenced by advice or negative opinions. I told my best friend who lives in New York, and if I had to single out one person responsible for me getting to the finish line, it is her. She was always my biggest advocate. I didn’t tell my mom. She’s very risk-averse. But, I did tell my dad because he’s very savvy and always a champion of his kids doing things outside of corporate America.

I chose not to have any investors because I wanted Truckshop to be mine. I worked hard, and I saved my money. I never knew what I was saving for, but I wanted to have money for when I knew. I didn’t want to borrow money. I wanted full control. That was really important to me.

Writing the Business Plan

I knew that if I wanted to get this shop off the ground, I needed a business plan, and that I definitely wasn’t interested in a formal business plan. I wasn’t going to have time to do it, it was going to get boring, and I’d probably lose interest before I ever started. So, I just started a simple checklist in Word: Need a truck, need merchandise, need insurance, need an LLC. Making a list of what I knew I needed, then checking off the list — from start to finish – lasted eight to nine months.

Hiring a Designer

Another thing I knew is that I’m not an interior designer. But I had the business card of a designer, and it was a really cute business card that just said: “Interior Designer, Michelle Pinales.” I emailed her and said, “I don’t know who you are, I don’t know what kind of interior design you specialize in, but I love your card, and this is what I’m trying to do. Do you think you would be interested?” And from there, we formed a friendship as well as a dual effort in transforming my truck. She was a big influence in making it come to life. She took my ideas, and together we figured out what we needed to do to execute it.

Getting Insurance

So, I got my truck, I found a designer, I had my LLC, and then I needed insurance. I knew that once I started to drive the truck around, I would need insurance. What I did not know was that no insurance company in Ohio was willing to branch out and cover mobile fashion trucks. You see, food trucks had no problem because there are tons of them in the country. Laws, insurance, and policies were designed and polished. But for a fashion truck, that meant somebody was going to step into my truck, and I mean nobody—days and weeks went by and I called what I felt was every insurance company—nobody would talk to me. A few weeks later, we ended up finding one insurance company out of California that insured people in Ohio, and that was the only one I could find.

Finding a Retail Niche

The philosophy of Truckshop is: We’re here today, gone tomorrow. Instead of waiting for people to come to us, like a brick-and-mortar store, we come to them. I think that creates some excitement. People know that if they don’t buy something they like, it’s going to be hard to find me again, or it might be gone next time. For that reason, everything in the store is $65 or less. We catch people on impulse, so we want to create a fun selection of items that are inexpensive, but also well-curated.

Preparing the Grand Opening

Some friends helped me open the shop on a Saturday. Leading up to that week, we were down to the absolute last minute. We finished the interior of the truck on that Thursday. Earlier in the week, we were supposed to get the truck “wrapped” — it’s a huge sticker that goes on the outside of the truck. You have to be well-trained to wrap a truck, and of course, those well-trained people had something come up and couldn’t do it in time. Finding someone else who could wrap a truck within a few days was like asking for a miracle. There are very few people who do it.

Long story short, and a lot of phone calls later, we fell asleep at 7 a.m. Saturday with a fully wrapped truck, and woke up at 7:45 a.m. to get ready. We opened for business by 10 a.m.

I remember telling my friends, “I just hope somebody buys something. I hope people like it.” I thought it looked awesome, and I loved the way everything turned out. I was super excited. But, opening for the first time, you have no idea what to expect. The first day, we sold out of almost everything. I remember that night I literally felt like I had won the lottery. It felt so good, and at the same time, it was really humbling.

For the rest of the afternoon, I took the world’s biggest nap. And then we went out and celebrated. On Sunday, I slept in and did nothing.

Staying Humble

Behind a lot of success is a lot of hard work. While it’s fun, exciting, and hands-down the best thing I’ve done with my life to date, this is the hardest I’ve ever worked. It can be exhausting: hard work, no shortcuts, and a lot of setbacks.

In terms of the truck, it’s the clothing that comes in, steaming it, tagging it, paying the bills, scheduling the events. Wanting to go to City Flea, Cincinnati’s curated urban flea market, involves a lot more than just showing up. It’s months and months of selling your idea to organizers, proving that you should be there instead of the thousands of applicants they have to turn down. It’s selling your business, but also selling yourself. There’s so much work that goes into convincing people that yes, others will like this.

I had this little checklist in my mind. I wanted to be on TV, I wanted to be in a newspaper. We’ve been everywhere from the Chicago Sun-Times to the cover of our hometown newspaper, to being named “Best Boutique” by Cincinnati Magazine. I’ve done this because I love it, and it’s my passion. I’m humbled by what I’ve been given, and it’s important that I stay humble. It’s been crucial to my success.