Mobile Entrepreneurs Place Collaboration Above Competition

By Matt Buedel Journal Star, Peoria, Ill.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Shay Obrey's boutique on wheels was the first mobile business to begin rolling on Peoria's streets, but it has quickly been joined by at least two more like-minded entrepreneurs eager to be in business without the constraints of a brick-and-mortar storefront.

PEORIA

The first mobile boutique Shay Obrey encountered a few years ago in St. Louis initially appealed to her shopping instinct, but the concept -- essentially a food truck, but for clothing -- became a permanent resident in the back of her mind.

"Of course, we went and we shopped, but for days and weeks and months after, I thought about it," said Obrey, a grade-school teacher for the last eight years. "I could never shake the idea of wanting to do something like that."

By January, the inkling became a reality in the form of The Runaway Rack, a step van the size of a UPS truck repurposed with a dressing room, welded clothing racks, tables, lighting and a checkout counter. French doors open from the rear of the vehicle, which is wrapped with the business logo.

Obrey's venture was the first mobile business to begin rolling on Peoria's streets, but it has quickly been joined by at least two more like-minded entrepreneurs eager to be in business without the constraints of a brick-and-mortar storefront.

Sarah Johnson transformed her jewelry making business into Brazen with an old Winnebago, while Paige Ehnle turned a similar vintage Airstream trailer into a western boot boutique called No Roots Boots.

Like hundreds of other similar mobile establishments that have emerged nationwide over the last five years, the three mobile boutiques that have hit the road in the Peoria area started operations with a spirit of cooperation rather than competition.

"It's been overwhelming to see how many people have been helpful," Obrey said. "We've taken our personalities and our styles and made this little community."

The ethos, it seems, is part of the business model. The creators of a mobile fashion truck in California began the American Mobile Retail Association (AMRA) in 2013 to counsel other mobile business startups and encourage collaboration with each other and brick-and-mortar businesses.

The AMRA has worked with more than 500 entrepreneurs to start mobile outlets over the last four years and advocates for mobile-retail friendly regulations.

In Peoria, mobile retail establishments aren't specifically addressed by any ordinance. About the only requirement is that such businesses attract customers to private property in non-residential areas, said assistant city manager Chris Setti.

"In general, they can't park on city streets or vend from city streets. We don't have an ordinance that provides for that," Setti said. "As long as they're operating on private property that's properly zoned, we have no one asking us to look at it or change it. Right now, we're happy with how the business is going in town."

According to a 2015 AMRA membership survey, 82 percent of new mobile retail business owners spent less than $9,000 on a vehicle and 91 percent spent less than that amount to retrofit the truck or trailer. Most -- 74 percent -- paid with personal savings, while the rest borrowed from friends or family.

Each of the Peoria area entrepreneurs relied on a close network of friends and family to execute their personal visions.

Johnson created the Brazen brand in 2015 and began taking her hand-made jewelry to farmers markets, festivals and art shows throughout the Midwest. She focuses on jewelry but has officially left that descriptor out of the name of her business to allow for future expansion.

She wanted a show room, a storefront, but the studio at her home in rural Glasford isn't exactly a heavy traffic area. And she couldn't be sure a brick-and-mortar establishment elsewhere would be worth the overhead.

So she found a 1973 Winnebago -- that didn't run and had no roof. A diesel-mechanic husband came in handy.

"When we sat down and made a list of things to do, it was staggering, it was overwhelming," Johnson said. "It's not just building a store, it's a vehicle, and it has to be safe and legal."

It took the couple about seven weeks to rebuild the 21-foot vehicle as an operational mobile boutique, which hosted a grand opening April 15 outside thirty-thirty Coffee Co. in Downtown Peoria.

For the mobile entrepreneurs and more traditional business owners who provide a place to park, the arrangement has generally been a two-way street. Mobile spots pick up foot traffic but also draw customers from their own social media following.

Ehnle leans heavily on Instagram and Facebook to promote No Roots Boots and advertise her products and scheduled locations for her metallic 29-foot Airstream, which she first took on the road in May.

She's looking to bring her business to customers who want high-quality leather boots -- mostly western, but some fashion footwear, as well -- that they can't find nearby.

"I found my niche market," Ehnle said. "After working in a brick-and-mortar (boot store), I know how much you are tied to a place and the hours, and I wanted the flexibility."

She expects her business to take hour out of the city as much as into it. Ehnle's first few excursions took her to some small towns around Peoria where a store like No Roots Boots probably wouldn't survive. But she found willing partners in other businesses that have kept their doors open.

"Community over competition -- that's something I've really taken to heart," Ehnle said. "We can cross-promote each other. I would rather work with small businesses and partner with them."

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