Fashion is fleeting — literally. To connect with customers in a tough economy, retailers have started taking their products directly to their customers, showing up in a crazy caravan of Airstreams, campers and even delivery vans. With 73% of women shopping less often today than a year ago, such innovation is essential to awaken consumer lust.
Fittingly, the newest door-to-door salespersons are a quirky clan of fashionistas: Cynthia Rowley (a designer of dresses, garden hoses and bandages), Alice + Olivia, Shipley & Halmos; Skechers Fitness and Sanrio's Hello Kitty. Even upscale Marc Jacobs got in the game, renting an ice cream truck to sell jewelry on New York's Fashion Night's Out. "If Hermes or Burberry did this," says ConsumerX retail strategist Chuck Palmer, "it might be a head-scratcher."
But for those catering to cool consumers under 35, mobile units are a natural progression from the recent eruption of pop-up stores.
"It's the ultimate partnership between stores and customers: You're captivating your audience while capturing it. Both sides get undivided attention," says Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at The NPD Group.
Rowley is kind of the den mother of rolling retail. She hit the road in October 2009, having scooped up a DHL delivery van after the express service closed. She's stopped everywhere from Miami's exclusive Art Basel to the parking lot of Texas' largest mall, Houston's Galleria, to shoppers' own driveways. Flexibility allows her to add stops at a whim.
"One customer booked the van for a backyard barbecue," says Lauren Wolfenden, ex-Rowley publicist and current associate editor at consumer intelligence firm Tobe. "It's an updated version of the Tupperware party. You can wear slippers and shop at home."
Being on the move allows retailers to avoid buying real estate in a down economy, while providing fun focus-group worthy feedback.
"Coming into a store and saying, 'Hi,' is boring," says Shipley & Halmos' designer Jeff Halmos. "This allows customers to interact with us."
He and partner Sam Shipley stopped in 13 cities and discovered one-fourth of shoppers were familiar with their brand, another fourth learned about the tour from the Web and the other half didn't know the label.
These fans — new and old — are also more likely to shop than in a traditional store "because they're having fun," Palmer says. "They feel good about the purchase and will always remember when they bought it — and will share the experience with others."
E-mail, Twitter, Facebook, FourSquare or word-of-mouth add to the insider cachet. "It's only there a limited time — the latest version of Blue Light Specials: Grab the deal now or you'll miss it," he says.
And there are perks. Shipley & Halmos shot 6,000 photos of customers for a book to be sold at Barney's Co-ops. Skechers Fitness allowed patrons to sample shoes on their treadmills during its 20-city summer trek. Sanrio, owner of Hello Kitty, celebrated its 50th anniversary by selling event-themed T-shirts, bobblehead toys and smartphone cases as it moved from San Francisco to New Orleans.
Alice + Olivia gave makeovers and raised funds for local charities at stops in the South. Designer Stacey Bendet traveled in a 1970s Airstream with fellow "downtown party girls" including a singer and Carrie Underwood's fashion stylist. "Customers can see how crazy we are in person!"
The novelty draws not only shoppers but local media coverage. Additionally, Shipley & Halmos also blogged on fashionista fave Style.com, while Rowley and Alice + Olivia created Twitter feeds tailored to their trucks and entertained Facebook friends.
Rowley says she's likely to keep on trucking once retail rebounds. "I can see multiple vans, perhaps one geared to moms — filled with kids clothes and our Pampers — that would stop near playgrounds," she says.
Michele Meyer covered the fashion collections in Paris, Milan, New York and Los Angeles while a full-time fashion editor and writer. Now a freelance writer, her retail stories run in USAWeekend, Women's Wear Daily, Lucky, Real Simple, Four Seasons and The Ritz-Carlton. You can sign up for an email alert for all dealnews features.