Over the past few years, we’ve watched as grungy clunkers peddling stale ham sandwiches outside construction zones and auto factories morphed into food trucks: customized restaurants on wheels stationed on busy street corners and selling soup, waffles, barbecue, dim sum, crème brûlée, and everything in between. Today, these mobile culinary hotspots are all over the country. Make no mistake about it—the food truck is a hit.
Now retailers, taking their cue straight from food trucks, are putting their wares on wheels, too. In this ever-expanding, competitive sales and marketing landscape, brands must find ways to make what they sell stand out; if anyone knows about competing for customers, it’s retailers. With the growth of online shopping, many retailers have been forced to find a way to stay in the game. According to a recent Reuters article, online spending has risen 9 percent in the third quarter, which was “the fourth straight quarter of year-over-year growth following the U.S. economic downturn.” But instead of waiting for shoppers to come to them, retailers are now going directly to the shopper, in some instances right to their doorstep.
New York City designer Cynthia Rowley converted an old DHL courier truck into a glamour shop on wheels. Initially, it only visited parties and private events, but in October 2009, Rowley took the show on the road, and she’s been traveling ever since. The truck has hardwood floors, a sound system, fitting rooms, and is stocked with Rowley’s collection of clothes, accessories, shoes, and handbags. Always trying something different (she recently designed a line of bandages for BAND-AID), Rowley told the Los Angeles Times in September 2010, “On many levels it’s the ultimate in customer service. It’s more convenient, more immediate, and more of an experience than buying online to actually bring the store to our customers.”
Alice + Olivia
This label, which its website describes as “a sophisticated, yet eclectic brand with a playful sensibility,” took that playfulness to a new level when it spent the summer of 2010 traversing around the Southern states in a renovated Airstream, offering not only their quirky fashion, but makeovers, too.
Sanrio, the parent company of Hello Kitty, recently hosted a tailgating party in San Francisco to celebrate the company’s fiftieth anniversary. The party featured not one, but two trucks, which were covered in Hello Kitty graphics and offered some fifty collectable items for sale, including Hello Kitty cameras and headphones.
Joey Wolffer and Trish Carroll transformed an old Lay’s potato chip truck into a sleek, leopard-printed mobile that motored around East Hampton, New York, during the summer of 2010. The pair shopped the world over to find their goods, and carried everything from handmade bracelets from Argentina to jean jackets from Greece. Carroll told the East Hampton Star, “Why have bricks and mortar? This can be changed out, very quick, fast … and the idea is like, ‘where are you?’”
Artists Jonathan Sinclair, Peterson Lochard, and Ganiu Ladejobi sell graphic T-shirts and toys out of their converted DHL truck shop. The threesome keep their store parked near the busy shopping corner of Prince and Broadway streets in SoHo, and play hip-hop music and snap photos of each patron who buys something so to post on their website. According to Entrepreneur.com, one of their biggest advantages is that the “competition is almost nonexistent,” and that the stores located near where they’re parked are “happy to have them because … the hip-hop make potential buyers slow down to window shop and maybe venture inside.”
The Gypsy Couture
In October 2009, Cordie Jasinsky got the wheels turning on her traveling boutique, The Gypsy Couture. Jasinksy stays busy with her refurbished 1940s travel trailer mostly at private parties, horse shows, and at the Boerne Market Days in Boerne, Texas. Jasinsky doesn’t advertise what brands she carries and only buys six of every item to ensure that her customers will walk away with something unique. She admits, “I try to carry what other people don’t carry” She adds, “I’m staying a step ahead because I’m always out there looking for new brands.”
Blood is the New Black
Blood is the New Black designer, Mitra Khayyam, found an old ARAMARK delivery truck on Craigslist, painted it with hot-pink stripes, and debuted her mobile shop on June 5, 2010. Khayyam dubbed it the Summer Fling Truck and cruised around Los Angeles selling BITNB limited-edition T-shirts, Coolhaus ice-cream bars, and I Make My Case mobile accessories. Khayyam explains the idea on her website: “I realized I wanted to bring my tees to fans as easily as I was getting my taco, right there on the curb.”
The Results Aren’t In
Will this trend take off? Is it more lucrative than having a classic brick-and-mortar presence? Perhaps in some places. According to Entrepreneur.com, a recently advertised rent in SoHo (for a property near the spot where the Cookies-n-Cream truck sits) runs $53,000 a month, whereas the Cookies-n-Cream creators got their truck-shop up and running for $10,433. In Texas, Cordie Jasinsky agrees that a lot depends on where exactly you’re looking to set up shop. She also points out that her boutique on wheels includes some overhead: she pays around $2,000 a month in diesel fuel, has higher insurance premiums, and must factor in hotel bills and other expenses while on the road.
Now that the Internet has put more distance between the shopper and the retailer, these designers have found an innovative way to get up-front and personal with their customer again. Using social media tools like Facebook and Twitter to track their whereabouts, marketing is cheap and effective. Jhomy Irrazaba, a design director at a Manhattan-based branding and packaging firm who confesses to doing “a lot of Internet shopping” says, “I think the idea is genius. What worries me is dealing with a crowd. I would do it by appointment only.” Only time will tell if they’re right, but some might argue that these designers are reinventing the wheel.