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VOL. 36 | NO. 11 | Friday, March 16, 2012

Taking it to the streets

Time-strapped clientele fuels growing appetite for mobile businesses

By Linda Bryant

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Abigail Franklin and Kyah Hillis don’t sit around waiting for customers to find their boutique. They drive directly to them in a truck that’s been converted into a rolling store complete with a seven-foot ceiling, hardwood floor, custom-built racks, generator and air conditioner.

The business partners, who recently launched their mobile boutique TRUNK, are among a growing number of entrepreneurs in the Midstate offering their wares and services on wheels.

Retail industry experts say there are multiple factors driving the emerging trend. Americans are strapped for time, for example, and many are tired of generic shopping experiences and want a more humanized way to shop or purchase services. Plus, many business owners are operating on tight budgets and are unable – or unwilling – to pay the high overhead costs of a bricks and mortar store.

“I first started looking for a commercial retail space, but couldn’t find one for a price made sense,” Franklin says. “It would have meant thousands of dollars a month off the top. I wondered if the same concept would work for a retail boutique. I researched the topic and discovered that the movement is just beginning, especially in the Southeast.”

Kyah Hillis (left) and Abigail Franklin have taken the mobile business concept to another level with TRUNK, their boutique on wheels.

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Franklin, a stylist who has worked with high-profile acts including Michael Jackson, Motley Crew, Van Halen and Prince, also owns State, an online men’s boutique. Hillis, a fellow celebrity stylist, owns Sleeveless, an online accessories boutique.

The duo hopes to grow TRUNK into a full-time business that rolls from neighborhood to neighborhood. The boutique-on-wheels is already frequenting several local hot spots, including The Family Wash in Inglewood, Division Street near Yazoo Brewing Co., JJ Ashley’s and various spots on West End Avenue and Music Row.

“We’re still looking for places to park and open up shop,” Hillis says. “We are also open to going to office buildings or homes for shopping hours or parties.”

Hillis and Franklin say they’ve learned from their experiences in online retail that many customers crave convenience, personalized service and original products. “They are willing to pay more for personalized pieces that aren’t mass produced and that add a finishing touch to an outfit,” Franklin says.

TRUNK’s shelves are stocked with such accessories ranging from $20 to more than $100, including handcrafted bracelets, vintage saris, silk scarves, fedoras and driving caps.

The Coffee Truck’s bright green exterior is an eye catcher now, but the ‘before’ photo tells a different story. The business is a brother-sister partnership owned by Juliet and Sutherland Seals.

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“Shoppers are hungry for more attention,” Hillis adds. “They want one-of-a-kind pieces, and they want to know the story behind what they are wearing.”

From bronze to steel

Mary Allison Thomas joined the mobile business trend in 2009 when she launched My Pure Bronze, a Nashville-based mobile spray tanning business. The 26-year-old will go on the road to apply a spray tan using her own custom technique and solution. Thomas’ car is decked out with a prominent logo, but she sets up temporary shop in homes, sorority houses or other event spaces.

“The beauty industry is huge, so I knew I had a pretty good niche,” Thomas says. “My goal from the beginning was to think outside the box and do something a little different.”

The cost of a My Pure Bronze spray tan, which takes about 20 minutes to apply, is $30-$40, a price point that puts it in line with the similar services. For example, spray tans at Tantastica and Skin RN Aesthetics is $35 and $40 respectively, although special packages and discounts are sometimes offered.

Roy Davis of Classic Oil and Brake performs a brake job in the parking lot of a MetroCenter office building. In addition to maintenance, many larger-scale repairs can be done on site, he says.

-- Photo: Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

My Pure Bronze has grown steadily since beginning, Thomas says. She is now preparing to expand to another state and has started a national certification program for entrepreneurs who want to learn her custom spray tanning methods.

“Many people will spend money on a pick-me-up,” Thomas says. “People want to be taken care of.”

Health, wellness and personal beauty might be a high-growth sector, but many consumers are just as concerned about the appearance and condition of their cars, trucks and vans, says Steve Allen, who co-owns a mobile car repair service, Classic Oil and Brake, with his son, Roy Davis.

“People don’t like taking time off their jobs for car maintenance,” Allen says. “We can be located anywhere, wherever the customer is.”

Allen says the business has grown incrementally every year, especially in the last three. Part of the success strategy is making sure customers have a lot of services to choose from. Classic Oil and Brake does everything from oil changes to tire changes to maintenance on alternators, batteries and radiators. The business is also known for their ability to serve large fleets at place such as the state government offices, the U.S. Army Reserve and Hertz.

Shoppers examine merchandise in TRUNK’s mobile store during a recent stop at the YWCA on Woodmont Blvd. Several food trucks also were on hand.

-- Photo: Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

Price points at Classic Oil and Brake are generally similar to comparable services at standalone shops. For example, work on brakes begins at $95, while Budget Brakes advertises its services starting at $89.95.

Car detailing is arguably one of the most established mobile businesses in the Midstate. A Google search yields more than a dozen such companies.

David Cunio, owner of Dr. Detail Mobile Auto Detailing, says he entered the mobile car detailing business in 2009 after becoming discouraged with his corporate management job. He invested about $25,000 in equipment and got the word out about his services via the business reviews on the Internet, word-of-mouth channels and his website.

The business took off and hasn’t slowed down.

“The convenience factor is really appealing to a lot of people, especially with a service that’s going to take a while,” Curio says. “Auto detailing is a thorough cleaning that takes three to four hours. You try to get the car as close to new looking as you can, so it takes time. Many people don’t want sit and wait for it. I make detailing a lot easier than taking vehicle to the shop.”


-- Photo: Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

Curio’s price points are comparable to – and sometimes less – than similar mobile detailing shops. For example, he charges $60-70 for interior detailing, depending on the size of the car. Reflections Automobile Appearance Care charges $85-120 for interior detailing, depending on size, and Music City Detailing starts the service at $85.

Dr. Detail has customers throughout Middle Tennessee – not only individuals wanting curbside service at home, but those working near local business centers near Green Hills or local hospitals.

Finding a niche, learning skills

Juliet and Sutherland Seals, a brother and sister team, recently launched The Coffee Truck, hoping to cash in on two popular trends – gourmet coffee and food trucks.

“I looked around and didn’t see any other mobile coffee trucks out there,” Juliet says. “My brother and I actually grew up on a coffee farm in Costa Rica. We thought about having a bricks and mortar business, but having a truck gives us much more flexibility.”

The Seals are wheeling around to local colleges and universities, production sets and festivals and have a goal of expanding to Williamson and Sumner counties and adding a second truck.

“We want to make the truck a full-fledged, full-time business,” Juliet says.

The Seals, the offspring of the popular 1970s musician and songwriter Jim Seals, have the numbers on their side. According to researchers IBIS World, mobile street vendors are growing at an average of 7.7 percent a year and generate over $1 billion in sales a year.

Matt Held, the owner of Celebrity Pets, is cashing in on another niche – businesses that cater to pets. He launched the business in 2009 after getting laid off from his corporate job.

“The first year was tough,” Held says. “I worked a lot of 20-hour days. Right after the end of the first year, things really took off. People definitely respond to the pure convenience factor. They can get on a regular grooming schedule and not have to worry about their pets as much.”

Held thinks he’s successful because he picked a business growth industry and was also willing learn new skills. He attended the Concord School of Pet Grooming in Knoxville for more than three months before launching Celebrity Pets.

Jim Arnold, a national retail industry expert and vice president of the Atlanta-based North Highland consulting firm, says the mobile retailing is in the midst of a growth spurt, particularly in personal services, consumer electronics, home repair and maintenance, pet services, lawn care, party planning and food services.

“With today’s hectic professional and personal schedules, consumers are increasingly valuing one of their most limited assets – time,” Arnold says. “Many consumers are choosing to outsource large projects and repeatable services versus doing the projects themselves. Delivery businesses that simplify day-to-day activities by minimizing the time invested by the consumer are seeing a big lift.”

One reason delivery and service businesses are growing fast is because businesses have an insatiable need for them, says David Marr, owner of Pressed 4 Time, a local dry cleaning pick up and delivery business.

Marr has large commercial accounts at hospitals that need help with cleaning scrubs and lab coats and frequently serves law and accounting offices and other small businesses. The average customer spends $300-$500 a month, and he’s ready to add a new van to his fleet.

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