Swapping Fryers For Fitting Rooms: Chicago Looks To Regulate Mobile Boutiques

By Lauren Zumbach
Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Mobile boutique owners in Chicago say part of a new proposal that would limit trucks to two hours in any public parking spot would effectively guarantee they remain a rare sight on the roads.


After years of contentious efforts to regulate food trucks, Chicago is tackling a new kind of mobile business: trucks that swap fryers for fitting rooms and hawk merchandise, not meals.

The city in 2016 gave about a half-dozen mobile boutiques, selling apparel, shoes and artwork, permission to hit the streets for a two-year trial period.

City officials now want to establish rules governing them on a more permanent basis before their temporary business permits expire June 15.

The challenge? Catering to entrepreneurs seeking a novel way to launch or grow small businesses without making things tougher for their bricks-and-mortar counterparts or inviting unintended consequences if retail trucks start catching on.

The proposed ordinance, presented at a City Council committee meeting this week, would create a mobile merchant license with a $250 fee every two years, essentially preserving the rules that have been in place during the trial period.

Mobile boutique owners, however, say a portion of the proposal that would limit trucks to two hours in any public parking spot would effectively guarantee they remain a rare sight on the roads.

“It’s just not worth the time or money,” said Ann Sedgwick, who started a truck-based shoe boutique, Delicious Shoe, before opening her bricks-and-mortar store, Sfizi, in 2016 in the Ravenswood neighborhood.

Preparing the truck for customers after finding a spot takes about 45 minutes, nearly half the allotted time, she said. Outside of private parties and events, her truck now spends most days in storage.

Until two years ago, the city lacked a business license that fit the mobile model. Retail truck owners like Sedgwick said going mobile was a way to start a business without the risk of signing a lease on retail space or to supplement sales by getting wares in front of new customers.

Retail trucks have popped up across the country, and regulations vary city to city. Chicago wouldn’t be the first to set out specific rules distinct from those governing food trucks or street vendors: St. Paul, Minn., has a license requiring mobile merchants to avoid congested areas and sell only new items. However, it doesn’t set time limits, beyond requiring they park legally and shut down between 3:30 and 5:30 p.m. and overnight.

Rosa Escareno, commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, said the city wants to stick with the rules that have been in place since 2016 because they work. Over the past two years, the mobile boutiques have generated no complaints, and six of the seven that received temporary permits remain in operation, Escarneo said.

One requirement drew complaints from mobile boutique owners at the committee meeting: the two-hour time limit on street parking. Businesses can park their trucks for as long as they like on private property with the owner’s permission.

Mobile boutique owners said the two-hour limit, which also applies to food trucks, isn’t feasible given the amount of time it takes to set up a retail truck for customers and the challenges of finding truck-sized parking spots to move to throughout the day.

The vendors said they’ve relied on workarounds, like sticking to events where they’re invited to park all day, during the two years the rules have been in place. Juana Ryan said she’s avoided downtown and kept her StellaLily truck in neighborhoods where the two-hour limit tended not to be enforced.

“You have to come in at 6 a.m. to get a spot, and once you leave, you can’t find another one,” Ryan said.

Most shoppers also want more time to consider a purchase when buying a shirt or pair of shoes than a sandwich.

“I can’t tell you how many customers say they’ll come back later when they have time,” said Rebecca Mueller, owner of North & Hudson.

Those are customers Mueller said she’d lose if she had to keep moving and didn’t also have a traditional store at Block 37 to direct them to.

“I’m afraid I would have gone out of business if I hadn’t got the bricks-and-mortar store as soon as I did,” she said.

If Chicago keeps the two-hour limit, Mueller said she would consider moving the truck to an area where it’s easier to operate.

Some aldermen said they still had basic questions about the proposed ordinance, such as where trucks would be allowed to park, how much control they would have over trucks operating in their wards, and the potential impact on bricks-and-mortar stores.

“I don’t see this helping us fill our stores,” said Ald. Tom Tunney, 44th, adding that he wants more time “to make sure it’s a win-win.”

Mobile shop owners downplayed the competition.

“I would never park right in front of a small business boutique,” said Lisa Dalton Kula, owner of What She Wants Boutique in Libertyville and truck-based Fashion in Motion.

Others said they think they can benefit traditional shops by drawing foot traffic. Laura Guenther, owner of Local Goods Chicago in Edgebrook, invited Ryan to park the StellaLily truck outside her store one day last summer and said she thought the novelty of the event helped both businesses draw shoppers.

Guenther is bullish enough about the concept she’s considering buying her own truck to bring Local Goods Chicago to customers in other parts of the city. But she doesn’t like the idea of having a truck parked outside her store all day on a regular basis.

“Then you might as well just have a bricks-and-mortar store,” she said. “The key business driver they have is that excitement.”

Ald. John Arena, 45th, said he found “great irony” in the idea that the city would try to protect traditional retailers by taking a cautious approach to mobile boutiques while simultaneously offering tax breaks to Amazon in hopes of securing the e-commerce giant’s second headquarters.

Arena, who thinks the city created “too high a regulatory bar” when it came to food trucks, suggested giving individual wards the ability to take a more flexible approach to mobile boutiques.

But Tunney questioned whether looser rules for boutiques, which unlike food trucks, don’t have to keep their distance from bricks-and-mortar competitors, would encourage food truck operators to challenge their regulations.

“If we put this language in here, the food truck industry is going to go berserk,” he said.

Several aldermen suggested extending the mobile boutiques’ temporary permits to let them stay open during the peak summer months while studying a more permanent solution. The committee is expected to take up the issue again next week.

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