In a world dominated by big-box retailers, wanting to start an independent retail business probably feels a bit like David battling Goliath. "Why bother?" you think. "I'll only get crushed." But these days, your small size could save your business. The big boxes have gotten so bloated. The good news is, retail spending has remained strong through the economic ups and downs (it totaled about $3.58 trillion in 2002, according to the U.S. Census Bureau).

While the costs of establishing a permanent retail location can be steep--you may spend up to $100,000 or more, with leases spanning three to 10 years--carts, kiosks and temporary spaces can be an easier way to get a foot in the door with a lot less risk. The upfront investment for a kiosk or a cart ranges from just $2,000 to $10,000, according to Patricia Norins, publisher of Specialty Retail Report , a quarterly trade publication for specialty retailers. And today, carts and kiosks are a $10 billion industry.

Flexibility is another advantage to staying small. License agreements for carts and kiosks are shorter and are usually renewed every month up to one year depending on the location. This arrangement makes it easy for entrepreneurs to "come in, try it out for a month, and if their product isn't working, shift to a new product line or close up shop and move to a new location," Norins says.

These temporary locations can also work well for seasonal businesses that only need to be open for a limited time. For example, a specialty candy shop may open just before Christmas, remain open through Valentine's Day, Easter and Mother's Day, then close for the remainder of the year. The most popular site for a temporary operation is a busy mall, but many operators are also finding success in airports and other transportation facilities, at sporting events, and at other creative venues limited only by their imagination and ability to strike a deal with the property manager.

At the Mall of America, about 100 temporary tenants dazzle 40 million visitors a year. Cart rental rates are about $2,300 a month or 15 percent of monthly sales, whichever is greater. All temporary tenants must pay an initial fee of $1,500 in "key money," which pays for a store designer to design and build a cart with the right look.

Not interested in doing business in a mall? Street vendors and swap meet and fair concessionaires need to check with the city or county in which they want to do business for the regulations and specifications for the types of products, hours and displays that are allowed.

Starting Your Business
Options for starting a cart or kiosk business include opening a permanent location in a mall and leasing a cart; buying a cart to use for outdoor events or on street corners; or renting a cart short-term.

"The least expensive option is to rent [a cart] for a short time and see how it goes," says Bruce Stockberger, owner of Stockberger Marketing Associates, a North Palm Beach, Florida, small-business marketing firm specializing in cart, kiosk and Internet marketing. He says you'll spend at least $600 per week for rent.

Whether you lease or buy a cart depends on your product and location. In malls, you generally lease a cart from mall management. The cost of leasing depends on the season and mall traffic volume but is usually at least $800 per month for space and a cart, and can get very high in a good location. Some malls charge a percentage of your sales in addition to monthly rent. Wally Rizza, owner of several carts in high-profile locations like the Irvine Spectrum Entertainment Center in Irvine, California, pays more than $2,000 per month for rent on each of his five carts.

"Kiosks start higher than carts, usually $9,000 or $10,000," says Denise Clark, author of From Dogs . . . To Riches: A Step-by-Step Guide to Start & Operate Your Own Mobile Cart Vending Business. Additional start-up costs depend on your merchandise. Items such as jewelry and crystal require a greater investment than, say, hot dogs.

Carts come in many sizes and styles with varying capabilities. There are carts for specific types of food, some with refrigerators, grills, steamers--even small ovens so you can bake on location. Determine your needs before ordering a cart, advises Jeffrey Morris, president of All A Cart Manufacturing Inc. in Columbus, Ohio, a cart design and manufacturing company. "List your products and the equipment required to make or display them," he says. "Also draw a simple layout of the cart to give [the manufacturer] an idea of size requirements."

Think versatility, especially with food. Don't limit yourself to making one item, in case it doesn't sell well and you have to switch gears. "What sells might be completely opposite from what you thought," says Gerardo Gonzalez, president of Gonzalez & Associates, a Piscataway, New Jersey, company that consults on mobile merchandising and food-service start-ups.

You can get a good deal on used carts, but Clark, who also sells custom-designed carts, urges caution. "People buy a cart they think is cute--only to find out they've purchased someone else's headache," she says. "It ends up costing more to modify than to buy new."

Permanent or Temporary Location?

In cart sales, location is everything. Here's your first decision: Do you want a permanent location or should you move from event to event?

With a permanent mall location, you don't have to worry about purchasing a cart, moving it or battling bad weather (unless it's an outdoor mall). You can build a clientele and predict how business will go and how much product you'll need. On the downside, rent may rise. If mall sales slump, you'll suffer. And if your product isn't exclusive, a neighboring store could start offering the same merchandise.

There are many upsides to owning a mobile cart, says Clark, who does most of her business at special events. "You don't have overhead like rent and utilities," she says, "and if sales are poor, you just move."

Focusing on Your Target Audience
Choosing a location really comes down to one key element: "It starts with identifying who your target customer is. You want to locate close to where those customers are," says Howard Van Auken, academic director for the Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship at Iowa State University in Ames.

Thinking about her target customers worked for Diane Flannery, a Ben & Jerry's franchisee as well as CEO of Juma Ventures, a San Francisco organization that finds employment for inner-city kids. "When we started [with Ben & Jerry's] eight years ago, we were trying to find different venues where we could sell ice cream," she says. "We figured young people love baseball and ice cream, so the ballpark seemed like a good fit."

Once you've found your target customers, Van Auken says, "visit those areas and see what the traffic pattern is." In addition, according to Van Auken, you need to check with the property managers of your target location regarding such issues as product approval and display issues, security, operating costs, cash flow, staffing and lease length. (For a mall, you'll want to speak with mall management in charge of carts and kiosks. For a public place, contact the city or county to see if a cart is allowed and what permits are required. In a professional office building, contact building management.)

Susie Grant, specialty leasing manager for the Galleria at South Bay in Redondo Beach, California, also has a list of questions you'll need to consider:

  • What type of storage is available? While the Galleria's kiosks do have some storage space, tenants can buy more at an additional charge.
  • Do you plan on leasing during the holidays? Rent goes up considerably during that time.
  • How long a lease do you want to sign? Grant offers agreements that last anywhere from a month to a year.

After you've balanced out cost issues and decided on lease length, then it's time to find great staffers and set a move-in date. "[Location] is always based on availability," Grant says. "[Kiosk owners] may have something in mind that's not available at the time they're coming into the mall."

You'll also need to obtain a business license, and if you haul your cart like a trailer, you must get a license from the Department of Motor Vehicles. If you serve food, you'll need a permit from the Department of Health, which requires a specific amount of training in food preparation and handling. Malls often already have the carts permitted and insured.

While considering all these issues, one of the smartest things you can do is trust your instincts. "Go with your gut," Grant says. "If you have a good feeling about a location, it's probably going to be a pretty good place for you to start."

Make No Mistake

Beginning retailers make a lot of mistakes. Here are five of the biggest:

  1. Not doing a reality check. Do you have the temperament it takes to succeed in retail? "One of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking that retailing is going to be one way, and their experience turns out to be very different," says Daniel Butler, vice president of retail operations for the National Retail Federation in Washington, DC. "They're not realistic about the challenges." Retail is a lifestyle choice. Can you hack it? Butler suggests working part time in retail for a few months to find out before you start your business.
  2. Failing to research. Surprisingly, many beginning retailers don't develop a business plan or a marketing plan. "When someone comes to me and says 'This is the research we've done, this is why we feel this product will sell and why we'll be successful in this location,' it gives me a greater comfort level [in talking further]," says Courtney Lackey, a general manager with Jones Lang LaSalle, a property management leasing company that manages rental properties.
  3. Creating clutter. In retail, you're branding from day one. If your product displays have no rhyme or reason, customers have no reason to stop and shop. "The biggest mistake a cart or kiosk retailer can make is putting [out] too much merchandise," Lackey says. "Something that's well-displayed, colorful and catches your eye attracts customers."
  4. Competing with big-box retailers. Face it, as an independent retailer you'll never beat WalMart on price. But a lot of small retailers fall into the price trap of trying to compete with the big boys--a big mistake, says Bob Phibbs, a retail consultant in Long Beach, California. Instead, focus on your edge as a small retailer: customer service and a unique consumer experience.
  5. Choosing the wrong location. The rental rate may be great, but if the location doesn't draw people, you might be in trouble even if your product is good. Where are shoppers seeking your type of product going? What types of big-box retailers complement your product and will drive traffic your way? One no-cost way to find out is by sitting in a mall and watching the traffic flow. "If you decide you want upscale people, look at where they're already shopping and how you'd get that market," Phibbs says. "Know all these things {before} you sign leases."

Rules and Regulations

With shopping center leases, you're customarily charged for maintenance of common areas and for the mall's marketing efforts. Find out what the mall's plans are for any structural alterations or remodeling, resurfacing the parking lots, or replacing the roof. These can be devastating assessments for a young business. Requirements for hours and days of operation, employee parking restrictions, participation in community service events, gift certificate and loyalty programs, and storefront appearance may not fit into your business plan or capabilities. Make sure you'll be capable of conforming to these requirements.

Sources: Entrepreneur magazine and Start Your Own Business: The Only Startup Book You'll Ever Need.