Renting a retail storefront requires a lot of overhead, which can cause small-business owners to struggle to stay afloat, particularly in a sluggish economy. Debbie Dejesus found a solution: Close up shop and go mobile instead.
In May, Dejesus closed La Te Da, her 12-year-old women’s clothing store in Grass Valley, Calif., and turned it into a mobile boutique. Instead of paying rent and three part-time employees, she purchased a 20-foot-long truck that she mans herself. Rather than waiting for customers to come to a store, Dejesus goes to them: She drives her “fashion truck” from Silicon Valley, where she lives, to Lake Tahoe, stopping at points in between. She parks at street fairs, farmers markets, and other outdoor venues. Dejesus also books La Te Da fashion parties — shop-til-you-drop affairs in customers’ living rooms, similar to Avon and Tupperware events.
The Intuit Small Business Blog recently spoke with Dejesus about how her decision to go mobile and how it’s affecting her business.
ISBB: Why did you decide to close your retail store?
Dejesus: The first time I thought about closing the store was when my fiance moved to the Bay Area. I had to choose between him or the store, so I went for the former. But I was also paying top dollar in rent, employee costs, workers’ comp, etc. I had been doing the retail thing for 12 years, and I needed a change. I heard about the fashion truck trend, checked one out in New York a year ago, and thought, “I could do this.”
How did you make the transition?
The hardest thing was finding the truck. It’s not so easy to find a good one, and I wanted to get one that I felt safe driving. But I found a place in Palo Alto that sells quality trucks, and I picked a 20-foot truck, the longest one that I still felt safe handling on the road. I remodeled the inside myself, because it can get costly if you pay someone else to do it.
Then it was like starting any new business — you have to market yourself, let people know who you are, and what you sell. I needed to get insurance for the truck and for the goods I sell inside, but now the only major expenses are the gas and truck maintenance. I go to an event, make $1,000, and I don’t have to pay rent or salaries.
What do you do differently now than you did when you had the store?
When I first started the mobile boutique, I spent three hours a day on marketing myself and looking for venues. The hours are different: Instead of 9 to 5, my hours are set based on where the events are. I do private parties, block parties, and special events in all these different little towns. In terms of inventory, I now can carry any fashion line I want to, because I don’t compete with the other stores in my town. I carry less of some lines, but I try to provide more options overall.
When it comes to marketing, I’m not where I need to be yet, but I’m currently focusing on Facebook, because that’s what makes this type of mobile business. I put my events on my page, where I’m going to be, and every item I sell is photographed and posted up there. My customers now know where to find me by looking at the calendar on my Facebook page, but I’m working on building up my social media more.
Is it harder or easier running a mobile boutique than a bricks-and-mortar one?
I can’t say that it’s any easier than renting a storefront, but I work less and get to enjoy my life more. If you’re ready for a change but still love what you do, you can do it with a truck. You still work hard — it’s still retail — but you have many more options than you do with a store. You can choose your own hours, and you can pick and choose where you want to go and sell that day. It makes the work-life balance a little easier.