Tuesday, December 4, 2012
First came food trucks.
Then came gourmet food trucks.
Then came social media, which food truck owners could use to let devoted customer know where they are at any given time.
Now, in Walla Walla, comes a new variation on the theme -- what longtime friends Kimberly Miner and Tami Arias call the urban mobile shopping experience.
Or, as the two are fond of saying, "What it truly means to be a happy camper."
Indeed, Miner runs her business, called Carovana, out of a small 1979 Nomad camper trailer she renovated and stocked with the kind of small-item inventory one would find in a home, fashion or holiday boutique.
Parked with Arias' mobile boutique she named Tito & Sam (after her sons), the two women set up shop around town at various sites.
"We sell a little bit of everything," said Miner, who also is a professional photographer. Scarves, holiday decorations, home decor, slippers, soy candles and cards are just some of their wares.
The idea had percolated for about a year after Arias suggested it, and they felt it was perfect to get the new venture started in time for the current holiday season. The reality of the venture fell into place right away. On Sept. 26 they looked online for deals on used trailers. Within two days they both bought one. By the end of October they were ready to raise the curtains on their businesses.
Because they are mobile, Miner and Arias are flexible in location and hours they work. Currently, they're working from about 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Powered by gas generators, the trailers are usually parked by the former Charter Communications building on Poplar Street.
"We want to be centrally located, we need to be visible and the location needs to be free. Then we make ourselves visible," Miner said.
The city of Wallla Walla requires only that mobile vendors obtain a permit to operate.
Miner and Arias, who met in the 1980s when Miner was going to school with Arias' husband, have shared business ventures over the years. Along with running their trailer boutiques, they also team up as the Marketing Sherpas, handling marketing for a variety of businesses.
Arias said setting up trailer boutiques is a great way to avoid overhead costs that retailers at fixed locations face.
They each have small SUVs that can tow the trailers. Along the way they've learned a lot about buying and refurbishing these small, vintage trailers.
"We bought these as full campers and we gutted them," Miner said.
Everything was redesigned for the shopping experience. A vintage trailer can be found in a wide price range, usually depending on its condition. Miner bought hers for $500 and it cost her about $500 to refurbish it. She kept her costs low because she did the majority of the work herself.
Items Miner and Arias offer are selected from a variety of suppliers.
"This isn't junky stuff," Miner said. "We have brand names and good quality things."
"We carry a wide range of price points," added Arias.
For example, Miner said she has rings that sell at $4 and some that sell at $30. A new product line will feature Miner's photos in jewelry by Sally Shafer.
Inventory is very low, to stay in budget and because it's a small sales space, but special orders on certain items are not out of the question.
To get out the word on where they're parked, social media has become their digital billboard.
"We send personalized emails, we're on Facebook and Twitter," Arias said. They set up where they have permission of the lot's owner and make themselves visible with decorations and amusing signs.
"I think this is a new up and coming trend," she said. They have ongoing conversations with at least five other people who are buying similar trailers and plan to set up mobile boutiques.
Among them is Anne-Marie Notaras. She plans to open Molly MaGruder this spring in a 1964 Aladdin she got for $500 and will sell coffee and simple pastries.
Both Arias and Miner had seen a few trailer boutiques in larger cities. They suspect the trend is in its early stages in larger cities and in its infancy in Walla Walla.
The possibilities are endless.
Miner and Arias can be invited to take the trailer boutiques to private parties, festivals or anything where they just set up, open the doors and let the shopping begin.
Arias said she thinks that with so many people interested in farmers' markets, the stage is set for an outdoor mall of gypsy shopping trailers.
"I envision us out in a field somewhere. Maybe once a month we could have big rallies, caravans, trailer boutiques and food trucks. That would be a cool shopping experience." Miner said. It would be different from a traditional flea market because they would be selling new items, she said.
There are challenges in any new pursuit, but Miner and Arias say they love the entrepreneurial work and consider problems as opportunities to learn and be positive.
"The difference between those who are successful and those who are not is a willingness to think that failure is not failure; it's just tuition," Arias said.
Minor said it's important to just do it, just start and don't wait until everything is perfect.
"Just backfill, get it out there and then fill in the holes," Arias said.
They can be reached by text or email. Arias at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-3530, and Miner at email@example.com, 520-0456 or mycarovana.wordpress.com or