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How to Start a Kiosk Business

What you need to know about setting up shop in a kiosk or cart

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."

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