The boutique based in the back of a truck
- 25 July 2013
- From the section Business
To expand their booming fashion business, the owners of the Philadelphia boutique Smak Parlour decided to take their concept on the road - literally.
Within the first few days of opening the mobile store - known in the trade as a "fashion truck" - things were going well.
Then the power went out.
"The store was mobbed, and we lost the lights and the air conditioning three hours after we opened," says Abby Kessler, co-owner of the fashion truck and its bricks-and-mortar companion.
They managed to fill the generator and the team got back to making sales. Parked on the University of Pennsylvania's campus, an area without many boutiques or clothing shops, the truck was filled with students and employees of the nearby dental school.
But three hours later, it happened again.
"It turns out you don't fill a generator the same way you fill a car's tank," says Ms Kessler, who had to make a call to the company that designed the truck to determine the problem. "But what do we know about generators?"
Prior to opening the truck just a few weeks ago, Ms Kessler and her business partner Katie Lubieski operated in a world of jewellery, handbags, retro-print dresses, pretty shoes and sparkling tops.
The finer points of car repair and maintenance were not in their repertoire.
For eight years, the two have operated the Smak Parlour boutique in the Old City district of Philadelphia. They sell their own line of distressed T-shirts, as well as studded shorts, neon tops, cherry-print dresses and other youthful looks. Their prices - at under $100 (£65) - appeal to a diverse crowd.
The store was such a success that they began to think about expanding last year.
"We thought about a second store, but having one store is like having a baby. We weren't sure we were ready for another full-time commitment like that," says Ms Kessler.
Then they heard about fashion trucks in Los Angeles. "We knew right away that was the perfect idea," she says.
By providing their customers with a mobile shopping experience - turning the back of a box truck into a glamorous parlour, complete with dressing room, skylight and a selection of stock - they could keep costs low while bringing their product to a new audience.
"Overhead is a lot lower than a typical retail structure," says Natalie Nixon, director of the strategic design MBA programme at Philadelphia University.
"You're not paying for utilities, not paying for lighting and heating. You don't have to hire as many sales team members, and you can manage your inventory in a much more sophisticated way."
Of course, while it's cheaper to pay a parking permit fee than pay a monthly rent, there are still hefty start-up costs.
A used box truck can cost $20,000-$30,000 (£13,000-£20,000), although Ms Lubieski scoured advertisement website Craigslist and managed to get a good deal for $8,000 below budget. The truck then needed a major overhaul - French doors, hardwood floors, track lighting, air conditioning and a skylight.
To cut costs, Ms Kessler's graphic designer boyfriend designed the wrap on the outside of the truck. The two women also secured a $20,000 grant from a local small business organisation.
After a year-long wait, they were able to obtain a parking permit on the University of Pennsylvania's campus. It is several neighbourhoods away from their downtown boutique, but in an area that still appeals to the shop's youthful sensibility.
Ms Nixon says: "They aren't waiting for consumers to find them. They are being very proactive in saying, 'This is where we sense our consumers are, let's go to them.'"
And while the women of Smak Parlour plan to keep the truck at their current location from Monday to Friday, they also hope to take it to festivals, conventions and other locations at the weekend.
"There are so many options for fashion trucks and everybody is embracing the idea," says Ms Kessler, who explains that several hotels have been interested in hosting the truck.
The ability to travel to different customers and venues without paying for permanent locations was the key to success for a more established fashion truck in Los Angeles, where mobile boutiques are more common.
"You can grow at a faster rate than a regular bricks-and-mortar," says Jordana Fortaleza, co-owner of another fashion truck, JD Luxe. Her "boho-chic" truck makes stops in the Hollywood Heights, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood and at private parties.
In comparison to fixed-base stores, JD Luxe is able to offer goods at a lower price, and to spend more on growth, because of its lower running costs. "We have more money to put into our business as opposed to paying rent," she says.
After opening about a year-and-a-half ago, Ms Fortaleza says, the truck is already turning a profit.