Let’s take a peek into the economics behind adding a touring vehicle to your dance retail business.
Have you ever thought about what it would be like to have a branded, specialized vehicle that looks like a mini version of your store? Or even just a way to physically reach more customers, especially those in rural or underserved areas, and expand your customer base?
Almost any vehicle can be converted into a mobile pop-up shop, including Airstreams, campers, vans, SUVs or glass-wall trucks. The mobile boutique can be a fantastic way to create personalized, memorable brand experiences and provide social media buzz. Dance Business Weekly spoke with three dance retailers about what has worked and what has been a struggle, so you can consider whether the investment or their strategies might be a smart move for your business.
A Luxury Experience
Metronome Dancewear, located in the small coastal town of Carmel, CA, kept hearing from customers that they wanted a greater variety of pointe shoe options. “The amount of inventory required to have a sufficient stock is in the thousands for any one shoe style,” owner Heather Aldi says. “The finances just did not make sense, even if we captured the business of every single dancer within a 50-mile radius of our store. The ‘Toe Truck’ was our solution to that, and we are now able to keep a huge selection of inventory on hand because we fit dancers at studios all over California, and it has made it possible to us to better serve our own community.”
The Toe Truck’s cab is a Ford F-650, and the trailer was custom-created with weight in mind. “Had it been heavier, I would have needed a special driver’s license, but we kept it at a weight that did not require that and still allowed the engine to function,” says Aldi, who has a background in retail design.
The Toe Truck features a dressing room, ceiling tiles and retail lighting, and it has floors and walls that look like driftwood. It is powered via solar panels, with a backup generator if any fittings occur after dark. “The whole back and wrapping around the side is windows, so it feels light and bright, not like climbing into a creepy, enclosed van,” Aldi says, adding that there is no fee to studios, but she does require a minimum of 15 dancers to book a fitting appointment at a location.
Hartstra Manufacturing near Waco, TX, built out the trailer, and the Toe Truck was fully wrapped at the same time, to make the most of the advertising potential as it made its way back west. “All the customization does not come cheap, but my design background meant I was not paying for much of the consulting I would have needed, and I already had access to materials at ‘to the trade’ pricing,” Aldi says. “Still, we budgeted $100,000 and worked closely with our accountant on a depreciation schedule.”
When there are multiple studios booked in one area, Aldi stays overnight. It’s challenging finding hotels where she can park a 40-foot vehicle. It’s also been difficult finding the right personnel: “It is a unique combination of skill sets, being experienced and educated enough to fit pointe shoes well, being willing and able to drive a big truck, being old enough to fit our insurance requirements to drive, and yet being unencumbered by personal responsibility (like kids or pets), so that travel is not an issue,” Aldi says. “I very quickly went through a few people who did not work out, and, currently, I am the only person able to take the truck out.”
With a long waiting list of studios, “the truck would far outsell our store,” she says—if Aldi were willing to be out on the road all the time. “My own family obligations mean I have to limit our excursions to two weekends of the month for studios farther away. I will do weekday afternoons if I can get there and back in under an hour and a half.”
Branding on a Budget
Micki Samson started with a zero-dollar budget when she decided to add a mobile retail boutique option to The Dance Shop in Altoona, PA—and ended up spending $10,000.
Samson paid $4,000 for a 1992 Chevrolet P30 StepVan she found on craigslist. “It was in very rough shape and required quite a bit of engine work in addition to cosmetic help,” Samson says. “Luckily for me, my son is a mechanic, and we were able to get many of the parts at a local junkyard.”
She designed the interior and hired a local garage to do some of the fabrication, including adding a bulkhead and fitting room. “My late husband and my son helped me install the slatwall, cabinets and flooring,” Samson says. “I designed it to be a shopping space, but it is small, so only a few customers can shop at a time.”
Her main goal was to be noticed, and ideally she wanted to paint the truck hot pink. “I soon discovered that the cost of painting a vehicle that size and that deep a color would be $20,000,” Samson says. When she asked a local sign shop about a wrap, they said it wouldn’t work due to the truck’s rivets and the condition of the existing paint. So Samson ended up with a lot of vinyl signage for $5,000.
The Dance Shop Mobile Boutique uses store inventory and loads it up depending on each studio’s dress code. There is no fee to the studio; Samson pays it 10 percent back in a store gift card if sales are over $1,000.
“I have found that it is a much more valuable marketing tool than a sales tool,” Samson says. “One of the best things we do is hand out $10 store gift certificates to customers who shop in the mobile boutique (when we are at events). This is to encourage them to shop in-store, where there is so much more for them to buy. The first year we did this, we generated an additional $18,000 in store sales.”
Practical and Unbranded
Josephine Lee, owner of The Pointe Shop, opened her first brick-and-mortar location in Irvine, CA, in 2011. Shortly after, she noticed that she had some customers regularly driving hours to get fitted for pointe shoes, but on one particular day she had about five dancers from different Palm Springs–area studios show up for appointments. That’s when Lee realized she needed to take her fitting service on the road. She quickly researched and purchased a white Dodge cargo van. “I looked for what would work and what would be cheapest,” Lee says, adding she branded it at the time, but took the decals off later to prevent unwanted attention from potential thieves. “My personal dream is to have a store vehicle, but I am not very talented at DIY, and I can’t justify the cost. I would rather spend money on my brick-and-mortar locations.”
Today, The Pointe Shop has four physical locations, each with a vehicle that travels to local studios. The mobile-based sales account for roughly 20 percent of the business’ overall sales.
Studio visits are a labor-intensive event for the fitters who load up the van with store inventory, unload it in the studio, hold the fitting event, pack up, and then unload it back into the store. The Orange County–based van is the only one with its own inventory (although it does sometimes double-dip into it), and that certainly helps reduce the physical labor. However, Lee estimates that to properly fit 20 dancers, one needs $30,000 to $40,000 worth of pointe shoes. “It’s a really big financial commitment,” she says.
The Pointe Shop requires a minimum of 12 fittings for a local studio visit (within 50 miles). Lee takes on any road trips that might involve multiple studios over the course of a week, and needs 100 dancers a week to book appointments or the studios cover any travel costs.
Considering launching a mobile boutique for your store? Lee suggests: “I would only consider adding a mobile option if your brick-and-mortar already has enough sales, due to the cost of the inventory and labor.”
Hannah Maria Hayes has an MA in dance education from New York University and has been writing for Dance Media publications since 2008.