'Boutiques on wheels' offer on-trend looks
Before she puts on her colorful dress, wedge heels and accessories, Jackee Ging changes spark plugs, checks the oil and fires up the generator in her 1993 Chevy Step Van.
It's the life of a fashion truck entrepreneur.
Ging, of Scott, owns Style Truck, a mobile boutique she takes to festivals and other happenings throughout the region. She takes the clothing and accessories to shoppers.
“I know there are some misconceptions about fashion trucks — some people think they are resale, or not for all ages, but they are fashionable, on-trend boutiques on wheels,” Ging says. “I say, ‘Have fashion, will travel.' ”
Ging is one of a growing number of fashion truck entrepreneurs in the country. What started as a West Coast trend of mobile retail has journeyed east. It can be more challenging with the weather conditions in this part of the country, but Ging and others like her are committed to driving fashion forward — literally.
Fashion trucks have been around for about five years and have experienced a large growth the past two years, according to Stacey Jischke-Steffe, co-founder of the American Mobile Retail Association, based in Los Angeles. The latest figures show about 400 fashion trucks nationwide, with a large majority owned by women.
“They are really cool because they are boutiques on wheels,” Jischke-Steffe says. “Taking a store on the road is a viable business. It's not as risky as a brick-and-mortar store because you don't have the overhead. I feel it's very attainable for people.”
Fashion trucks follow standard retail policies in Pennsylvania, such as charging tax on accessories, but not clothing. Most of the trucks do not require an additional driver's license because of the size and weight, but liability and general truck insurance is needed. There are often additional costs, from as little as $25 to $1,800, to rent merchant space.
“It's a balancing act and it's risky,” says Ging, whose vehicle, a former tool truck, has reached 86,657 miles. “It's also all about networking and taking a chance on the next event. It also takes planning to make sure the items are displayed properly and everything is in the truck.”
Because, in reality, there usually is no turning back.
Owners have to constantly check forecasts and traffic patterns to arrive on time, and they have to be prepared for rain, snow or extreme heat.
The cost of a used truck can run between $2,500 to $15,000 and require work to transform it into a style truck, from exterior painting to tires and brake repair. Ging recommends hiring a mechanic to inspect the truck before a purchase. Sometimes, they need to be completely refurbished, which is where most of the investment is, she says.
Then, it's about finding creative venues where the truck can be parked. Ging has expanded her business to hosting private parties so a group of girlfriends can schedule a time for a personal shopping experience.
“It's girls' night out, and they love it,” Ging says. “They will offer advice to each other on what looks good or what they think their friends would like. There is no pressure. It's like playing dress-up for grownups.”
Pittsburgh is a viable city for this kind of retail, says Burt P. Flickinger, managing director of Strategic Resource Group, a New York City company that monitors consumer trends. The number of fashion trucks is growing, he says. The high cost of rent and real estate in popular shopping centers or the risk of opening a store in a declining shopping center make the trucks appealing.
“If you choose to go mobile, you have the ability to reach your customers wherever they are,” Flickinger says. “You can search out where they congregate and set up there during a peak time of a few hours such as near a transit center or college or university or setting up during a lunch hour or near certain entertainment venues where full-time retail might be prohibitive.”
Pittsburgh is an eastern leader in a lot of trends, Flickinger says, because it encompasses a United Nations of consumers with a high level of education.
Broke Little Rich Girl is both a fashion truck and a shop in Lawrenceville. Owner Samantha Lugo, of Brentwood, started her fashion truck in June 2013 and opened the store in September 2014. When she moved to Pittsburgh from Manhattan to attend Robert Morris University, she wasn't sure Pittsburgh would be receptive to her style, which she describes as urban and trendy.
“The store is easier, labor-wise, but the truck allows you to reach people in different areas of the city versus being in one location,” Lugo says. “Pittsburgh likes the fashion trucks because people in this city are curious. I think they really like when we all come together for an event, and I really love being around other fashion trucks because we all share a love of this city and enjoy being part of making it fashionable. We add our own tastes to merchandise we choose.”
Their taste also shows in how they transform the boxy metal facades.
Lugo's truck color scheme is pink, black and white. She accented the decor with a fancy chandelier, which transitioned into the design for her store.
Ging likes purple, so her mobile boutique is accented in that color. Marissa Zimmerman, who owns the Vintage Valet fashion truck based in Monongahela, has hot pink on the outside with a floral logo and a teal blue hue on the inside.
“I like the variety, and I like the unexpected when you walk into the truck because you never know what you might find,” says customer Diane Goodwin of Robinson “I think they're great for the city. And the fact they are mobile, you never know where you might see them. They are fun, and shopping should be fun.”
Wanting to create that festive and enjoyable retail experience is the goal of Zimmerman, who started her truck in 2013.
“I want to change the way people see retail,” Zimmerman says.
For her, it's the thrill of meeting people and talking about fashion. She makes the jewelry she sells from pieces she finds in antique stores.
“I was so nervous at my first event,” says Zimmerman says, who owns a 10-foot by 6-foot former U-Haul truck. “Sometimes people are afraid of stepping into the truck, so that is why we place some racks outside.
“You have to take chances in this business because you never know how an event will go unless you drive your truck there and see for yourself,” she says. “It is definitely not a business for everybody. It all depends on what you want to get out of it.”
In any kind of mobile retail you have to think fast and figure out things quickly, says Jischke-Steffe of the association, which expanded nationally in 2013 to offer business benefits to licensed and insured small companies.
“People are still exploring the fashion-truck business,” she says. “There are people who aren't familiar with it. People know more about food trucks than fashion trucks so that is one reason they might not walk right into a fashion truck because with food trucks you order at a window and don't step foot inside. It's a positive to have multiple trucks in an area because it creates a mobile mall. And a safe environment for the consumer that it is OK to go inside the truck.”
JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7889.