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The first time the brakes went out in her trailer/store, Joey Wolffer ran a stoplight and worried what would happen to her high-end accessories inside. Two years later, she has a close relationship with a mechanic, knows the best spot to park in New York's Meatpacking district and has a devoted summer following in the Hamptons.
Wolffer transformed a greasy potato chip truck into a 1980s glam, bohemian den she named "Styleliner." It is stocked with limited-edition accessories, such as a $430 crystal and fringe necklace, from her world travels.
Friends were always asking Wolffer where she got a piece of jewelry, and the former trend director for Jones Apparel Group said she was looking for a unique way to introduce some favorite designers to the U.S. market, along with some of her own creations. She bought the truck with money she inherited and set up shop.
Styleliner is among mobile retail stores in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., and across the U.S that are hawking vintage accessories, sexy shoes and denim to die for in their haute wheels. Owners say they're taking cues from the food truck industry, which glamorized street cuisine, garnered a cult following and even spawned a hit TV show.
"I wanted relationships with customers. I wanted to get out there and work with people and meet new people all the time," said Wolffer, who made a profit her first summer in business in 2010.
The boutiques on wheels can only accommodate a few customers at a time, providing a more intimate shopping experience than a crowded department store. Styleliner can fit about five customers at a time.
"The old door-to-door salesman is too difficult in today's world but we're seeing an uptick in bringing the product to the consumers," said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at New York-based NPD group.
It's also a cheaper way for startup companies to break into the business quickly.
When former fashion editor Sarah Ellison Lewis wanted to open a funky shoe boutique in Austin, Texas, she had sticker shock every time she saw the price for a store lease. So for a quarter of the price she bought a 30-foot trailer, decorated it with vintage wallpaper photography and reclaimed wooden benches, and leased a parking spot between a chic hotel and popular brunch spot.
She declined to say how much she paid for the truck or her parking spot. Retail spots in hot Austin neighborhoods can be as high as $45 per square foot, according to Habitat Hunters Real Estate Services. Lewis does not pay property taxes, but many mobile retailers are required to pay permit fees, which vary by city.
The 36-year-old stylist specializes in smaller, hard-to-find designers of men's and women's shoes. Bootleg Austin's customers about 50 a weekend love to paw through her well-curated collection that includes black ankle booties with gold buckles, polka dot flats and gold metallic lace-up sandals. The trailer was turning a profit in nine months, says Lewis, who predominantly sells from her leased space, but is about to embark on a 20-city tour this fall.
"This was about being an entrepreneur and doing it in a strange and audacious way, and the trailer brings out all these great stories from people that I love," said Lewis. "I wanted to do something that was also really friendly and really warm. I'm really sick of [retailers] being cold and stark and snotty."
Experts say traditional stores want to collaborate with mobile retailers, not compete with them. The trend comes as brick-and-mortar stores are struggling to get customers excited about shopping in a struggling economy.
"It's an opportunity to get (customers) into the parking lot and go to the mobile truck, and we believe there's overflow traffic that goes right into the store from there," said Mike Gatti, a senior vice president of the National Retail Federation. "We're not hearing really any complaints about them."
Customers are also drawn to the novel experience and personal attention they get from mobile retailers.
"People love it. You are now back to the social aspect of shopping," said Cohen.
In Portland, Ore., shoppers sift through vintage dresses and men's ties on a tricked out double-decker bus. The Fashion Truck features cute and affordable clothes from its Boston-based trailer. A chevron print shift dress sells for $48.
And it's not just retail. Experts predict consumers will see more industries, including medical and home furnishing, hitting the road.
The Man Cave offers haircuts, shoe shines and neck massages in an air conditioned trailer with high-end cigars and a humidifier. Owner Julia Hutton also runs two other mobile retailers in Phoenix, including Biker, Babes and Beyond LLC and Bling N' Things.
Hutton says a permit costs $35 a year in Cave Creek, a popular area in metro Phoenix, and about $1,000 in nearby Chandler. The Chandler permit requires owners to park in the same spot and doesn't allow them to roam the city.
Her company, ExTreme ReTrailers, also designs custom trailers to look like mini stores on wheels. The trailers include wireless credit card machines, changing rooms and air conditioning.
Trailers start at $10,000 and Hutton has five companies looking to purchase within the month, including a massage business, a pet products retailer and a craft store, she said.
She decided to take her store on the road after struggling to get enough foot traffic at her biker store in northern Arizona.
Hutton says mobile retailers solve a lot of problems for entrepreneurs in a struggling economy.
"They own their own business. They own their own building that the business is in. They own their own billboard. They have a traveling billboard wherever they go."