Carte Blanche

Think retailing is strictly a brick-and-mortar opportunity? Not so. The sky's the limit with a kiosk as your venue.

You have seen all those nifty kiosks in your local malls--they sell everything from hair products to cooking utensils to candy and cookies. Customers crowd around these carts and pony up big money for their wares. But can entrepreneurs really make serious money in these smaller venues? And what makes certain kiosk entrepreneurs ultra-successful?

Most kiosk success stories start with a good location, says Heather Davis, president of Specialty Retail Stores Inc. , a corporate kiosk-concept seller in Salt Lake City. Her turnkey kiosk concepts include HairDiamond, Halloween F/X and Waikiki Crab Co. Not only do you have to pick the right mall, with the right demographics that fit your product, she says, but your specific location within that mall is also crucial. "If you have the choice between two spots in the mall, and one of them has a premium rent tacked on to it, there's usually a reason for that," she says. "I would [choose] the best and negotiate for a better fee." If possible, she adds, check out the "50-yard line" section of a mall: "It's usually a wide, straight line in the very center of the mall, with the best tenants located on each side." But you'll want to stay away from a crowd of carts--if you're one in a long line of kiosks, you could get lost in the crowd.

The location decision can even come down to which stores are around you. Davis notes that her HairDiamond kiosks, for instance, tend to do well when they're located next to high-end women's apparel stores. When you find the right location and you're ready to sign the lease, Davis suggests enlisting the help of a kiosk leasing expert. Your franchisor or distributorship may help with this process. "When you get to the leasing point," says Davis, "try to find out what revenues the best cart operators [in your locale] are earning."

Though kiosks are most often associated with malls, you'll also find carts in places like amusement parks and corporate office complexes. David Mansfield, president of Corsair Carts and Kiosks in Canandaigua, New York, a kiosk and cart manufacturer, notes that entrepreneurs need to research each location to find out state and county regulations as well as the mall's own guidelines. Research everything, from food-safety requirements for food-related kiosks to the limits on how high kiosk walls can be if you're located in a mall. "They're all different," he says.

Once you establish your locations and meet all the requirements, you'll have to focus on one of the keys to kiosk success: customer service. Since your business is mostly one-on-one contact with your customers, you have to be stellar in serving their needs, says Noah Aychental, vice president of marketing and promotions at Gateway Newstands , a Canadian-based franchise in Richmond Hill, Ontario. In a kiosk environment, especially, "It's all about being friendly," Aychental notes. "Whether we're in an office tower or a shopping mall, a large percentage of our business is the same customer every day, so a service-oriented atmosphere is key."

And while you, the entrepreneur, may be gung-ho for customer service, you'll have to train the employees who man your stores in your absence to be equally as enthusiastic about your wares. Take the time to interview and train employees before you open your kiosk, cautions Davis. "If you want to grow and expand [your kiosk], you'll need a manager," she says. "Many people think they can open their carts themselves and hire employees later. But if you're working the cart, when are you going to interview employees? When are you going to train and develop them? Invest in hiring people and setting systems in place ahead of time."

To really make your kiosk go from good business to amazing business, says Davis, you need to take the time to plan your next steps. "Dedicate time to plan and set goals," she says. "Ask yourself: What sales volume do I want to do next month? How am I going to ensure that happens?" Don't get caught up in a month-to-month survival mentality--look for ways to excel and expand. Though they may be small in stature, kiosks can be big business.

We found four entrepreneurs who can attest to that--limited square footage isn't stopping them from earning sales in the six- to seven-figure range.

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This article was originally published in the August 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Carte Blanche.

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