Susan Johnston has written for The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, MyBusiness Magazine, PARADE Magazine, and US News & World Report. She lives in Somerville.
Mobile vendors selling clothes and shoes instead of food are popping up all over the place. How should cities treat them?
Last August, after winning first place in Emerson College’s E3 business plan competition, Derrick Cheung hit the streets of Boston in a truck selling men’s street apparel. He thought he’d done his homework on permits, but several months later, the young entrepreneur started getting $200 citations for occupying city property "without permits." According to Cheung, "that’s because the permit doesn’t exist yet."
Boston already supports dozens of food trucks, but since Green Street Vault sells sneakers instead of snickerdoodles, the city didn't know what to make of it. Turns out Cheung’s business model just doesn’t quite fit the existing permits.
As Boston Redevelopment Authority spokesperson Melina Schuler explains it, the only permit the city of Boston has to offer non-food mobile retailers is a highly restrictive hawker and peddlers license. "In downtown Boston between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., they cannot vend," she says. "Outside of those areas, they can vend but they have to move after every sale or every five minutes, whichever is less."
Cheung, obviously, believes this sort of permit doesn't make sense for his business model, so he and his fans are petitioning the mayor. In the spring, city officials met with brick and mortar businesses and mobile retailers, including Cheung, to discuss ways in which the two might coexist. In Cheung’s ideal world, the city would be divided into different zones with a few designated spots for mobile retailers, who would pay according to the zone and the square footage of their truck.
"Back Bay is Zone A, Downtown Crossing is Zone B," Cheung explains. "Your permit costs more on Newbury Street than it would farther away from Downtown. The permit that you have paid for is just an average of the cost per square footage for retail space over there and multiply that by the square footage of your truck. Having designated spots would limit the number of trucks."
When food trucks surged in popularity a few years ago, brick and mortar restaurants raised concerns that the trucks pose unfair competition because their overhead is lower so they can charge lower prices and still turn a profit. But as Cheung points out, consumer's appetite for clothing is less finite. While someone might satisfy their hunger with a grilled cheese sandwich from a truck rather than ordering from a restaurant, "if someone were to get a t-shirt from my truck, they could go into a store and get a hat," Cheung says. "The two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive."
Not all of the city’s mobile retailers see the lack of special permits as a major problem. Emily Benson, who founded The Fashion Truck last year, says her customers "are typically 25 to 45-year-old women, most likely working, who don’t have a lot of time to shop. The easiest way for them to shop is with me, by going to an open market every Sunday in Boston where they’re already going to shop for fruits and vegetables."
Benson also drives her truck to private parties several times a month (in September alone, she booked 11 private parties and did four open market dates) and says booking events is more efficient for her.
This fall, the city is giving one mobile retailer per week the chance to park on City Hall Plaza for one day as part of a pilot program. Benson and her truck participated, but Cheung declined the invitation, saying “I may have some other opportunities in the works to use the truck that could be more lucrative and impactful for my brand. There’s no way to gauge success off one day a week.”
While Cheung waits for the city to iron out its policy on mobile retailers, he’s partnered with another local brand to set up a pop-up shop near Newbury Street. Still, he says he’s eager to get back on the street with his truck. "The brand needs to be on the truck because of the name and the experience factor," he says. "The density of the truck, the closeness, and the people … It’s that marriage of online and brick and mortar."
Lack of clear-cut policies on mobile retail is a frustration shared by entrepreneurs in many cities, say Stefanie Hiebert and Erin Thiessen, who run Oh So Lovely Vintage, a mobile shop in Winnipeg, Manitoba. "We have definitely not had an easy time parking it wherever we please," says Thiessen. After bouncing around to several local officials, the pair never got a definitive answer about permits, so for now they rent space at art festivals around the province. They hope to revisit the permit issue next spring.
Vanessa Lurie, who runs Wanderlust Vintage in Portland, Oregon, says mobile retailers there run into more lease issues with landlords than problems with the city. "The most important requirement the city puts on us is that we have must be on pavement, carts running any type of business cannot be on gravel," she says. "I was looking at a space and decided against it because the landlords wouldn't pave."
Oregon’s Department of Motor Vehicles (where she wound up after several calls to different city departments) told Lurie she’s allowed to operate as long as she has insurance and a business license. But because the city of Portland doesn’t allow RVs parked on the street for more than 72 hours, Lurie stores her 1969 Cardinal Deluxe Trailer in a paid parking lot rather than in front of her house.
As for Benson and Cheung, he prefers to vend in established shopping areas like Boston’s Newbury Street, while she sees opportunities for mobile retailers to park in areas that aren’t known as retail destinations. "The city has put a lot of money into developing the seaport and waterfront area," Benson says. "There’s a lot of restaurants and offices, but there’s no retail. It would take a normal retailer 6-12 months to set up, but we can come in there and offer retail opportunities for those people that are in the offices and going to the restaurants. It’s a great way to bring in added value where the city’s really trying to grow."