What do you get when you add clothing racks, a changing room, and a cash register to a commercial truck? You get the brainchild of co-owners Emily Dobbie and Ashley Barber – fashiontruck Canada.
Creating their own niche in the Canadian retail market by delivering mobile fashion to the streets of Toronto, the GTA and beyond, Emily and Ashley opened their first truck, “Eve,” in March 2014 in partnership with MasterCard. Envisioning their business akin to food trucks, they weren’t aware of the many bumps they would hit on their road to success; but the drive has certainly proved worthwhile. A little over a year later, we sat down with Ashley to get an update on the business and how they overcame the roadblocks.
When fashiontruck Canada first launched, what was the initial reception from customers?
“Customers were really excited, which was exciting for us. Street parking and networking across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) was unbelievably successful for us. Rather than the one-off festivals and concerts, which was where we initially thought we were going to hit it out of the park as far as sales, street parking was much more lucrative. Moving around and being consistent about where people could find us has been really great for us. We have a semi-regular schedule that can change with the weather, but in general, we are in the same places around the same times each week.
We thought that street festivals and concerts were where we would generate a good portion of our sales. It turned out to be the total opposite. When you go to a food festival, you go for the food. When you go to a concert, you go for the music. Some people were excited to find us there, but most had another priority. So those events didn’t turn out to be as successful as we had thought."
Tell us about some of the "bumps" the truck has hit along the way.
“When we first went down to city council, we joined meetings about the food trucks even though we knew there weren’t any permits for trucks selling clothing on the street.
In our minds, it seemed like it would be really easy to set up like a food truck, but it’s actually not. There is a tremendous amount of thought and attention that goes into the permitting process. Given we aren’t an actual ‘food truck,’ we don’t have any sort of permitting for property to support our business; we probably never will. But since we are the only ones right now, we have found a way to make it work.
Since we can never be on city property, parking is a huge problem. We had to search for private spots that made sense to our business, ones that were affordable as well. Some parking lots charge $400 a day, while others in the downtown core cost anywhere from upwards of $15,000 per week. It’s gotten better in the second year by having spots set up in advance, knowing where to go, and who to talk to. So we manage the expense now, but parking is still a large priority for us."
There were other major challenges too, which is all part of owning a business, but ours were a bit unique.
- Season/weather is a big factor for our success; staying open during the winter season proved to be one failure after another. On really cold days, it takes up to three hours to warm the truck up with space heaters, and no one wants to undress to try something on when it’s cold.
- Equally challenging is keeping the truck cool in the summer when it’s hot. We have fans and plan to install windows for the summer, but again, it can be very hot in the changing room. Nowadays, we open in March and close between October and November, based on how well the weather holds up.
- Running the lights inside the truck also posed an issue. They originally ran from the truck battery, which killed the battery repeatedly. Now we have additional batteries installed with chargers, solely to power the lights. Other maintenance issues arise that come from operating out of a truck, and they bring unforeseen costs.
How has business evolved over the past year?
“We continue to see consistent growth, particularly with the private shopping parties. We initially did a few at the end of last year, and it’s exploded since then. This year, we partnered with several different home retailers and vendors, such as Stella & Dot, so we have bookings with these partners to accompany events they are hosting. We also schedule a lot of ladies’ parties for private shopping experiences. The women can drink wine, relax and shop with their friends. It’s the ultimate shopping experience. They love it, and so do we. And we continue to be very successful with these events.
What makes fashiontruck special?
“Prior to starting the business, I worked as a stylist out west and learned to adopt a very comfortable approach to helping customers. It was a full styling experience; with over 100 different styles of jeans, we knew how to fit people accordingly. That very honest and customer-centric business model works well with fashiontruck as well. I wanted to bring that honest, genuine approach to the fashiontruck customers, without being pushy or too sales-focused.
Beyond our obvious mobility, which sets us apart from other retailers, we have the opportunity to reach several different audiences and markets; young families in one area, or working professionals elsewhere, depending on where we are. We feel like we are on the cutting edge of retail. Retail is changing as people are going to online shopping more and more, because they want something different. They don’t want to go into big malls. By bringing the fashion and things they want to them, they can shop in a more comfortable, personal environment.
Also - everything we buy is hand-selected; we try it on and touch it to ensure its quality. So we feel like we have a great handle on what our customers want. Because of this, we have a very high turnover rate in inventory. I can be gone for a week and return to find that nearly everything is different. And this high turnover naturally helps to stay current on trends as well, so we try and carry certain items you can’t find elsewhere."
What were the initial goals for the business and how has it changed over time?
“When we first opened Eve, we thought we would continue to open new trucks in each major city in Canada, giving them each a different name. That was the original idea. We quickly learned how challenging it is to get the business up and running, and with all the issues we have faced with managing the permitting/parking, we learned that it would it be a very big challenge to go in that direction. There is definitely opportunity for franchise and we have been approached from some people in Australia and Dubai with interest, but as far as owning and operating all the trucks ourselves, we’ll have to see what the future holds."
How did you build interest in the business?
“One of the biggest things for fashiontruck was our partnership with MasterCard. With the MasterCard logo on the side of the truck, we had instant credibility. When people see a large brand like that partnering with us, it gave us immediate trust from buyers. MasterCard sponsored us as Canada’s first cashless mobile boutique; and cardholders always receive 10 percent off their purchases. Cashless is fast, easy, safe, efficient, and plays into the current demands of shoppers (moving away from cash purchasing).
Social media is our biggest draw to the business beyond the MasterCard partnership. Social media is where we post our parking locations, sales and promotions, upcoming trips, parties, and so much more."
‘Find us’ on Twitter
We use Twitter to provide fashion ideas but also to tell our customers where they can find us next.
Always Open on Facebook
Customers don’t always want to call to find out if we have their size in stock, so we use FB to open that line of communication and respond directly to availability inquiries.
Fashion-sense on Instagram
When we’re rolling out a new clothing line, or simply sharing the next season’s styles, Instagram lets us share the new trends with our followers. Followers can find everything via our Instagram account and use it to message us as well.
We’ve had a tremendous amount of growth with Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and we have a lot of open conversations with people. Our personal and business contact info is always available to our customers, making it easy for them to start a dialogue with us. I process a great deal of sales via Instagram as well. People see a picture of an item and message me that they want to buy it, so I end up shipping it to them.
We have found that being interactive with your customer is very important. Having conversations and letting customers know that you care about them is key to growing your business. For instance, a girl messaged me that she wished we could stay open an hour later, since she couldn’t arrive before our 6pm closing. So tonight, we are open at this location until 7pm, just for her. I personally manage all the social media. I don’t email so much – I personally don’t like to receive many marketing emails, so I take the same approach to my customers. Social media is usually where people are more active and can choose to follow/not follow what you have to say.
We’ve also created some hashtags to help us and our fans keep track of us: #shopthetruck, #fashiontruckcanada
What are some of fashiontruck’s needs as a small business?
“I think this goes for us as well as anyone else who owns a small business: shopping and buying local is very important. Buying chocolates and cheeses from local businesses, rather than buying from big box stores can make all the difference. We need people to have this mindset and think about buying from the small businesses to help them succeed.
A very unique need we also have is walking traffic. People traveling by foot is very important for our business and for discovery of the concept. If you haven’t heard about us from a friend or social media, and you don’t walk by, you likely won’t know we exist."
At what stage in the business did you start thinking about payment processing and what are the benefits of not handling cash?
“Going cashless was great for us – it’s fast, easy, and safe. Employees don’t have to handle cash and there aren’t countless bank trips each week.
Being cashless is also very efficient, but we needed a payment provider that would ensure this efficiency. Moneris has given us that without any issue. We had the system actually shut down once when it sensed a potential hacker. Moneris had someone here within 30 minutes to fix it. Not sure how it happened, but Moneris disabled the terminal right away to protect us and our customers, and then repaired the issue immediately. Having Moneris’ PAYD Pro mobile payment system also allows us to process payments right from our smartphone or tablet– from home, or on location at shows where we don’t have the truck. It’s super compact and easy to travel with, so that’s a tremendous value to us as well."
What advice do you have for small business who want to grow like fashiontruck?
- “Social media is very important. It doesn’t seem to matter who you are or what your business does, people love looking at pictures and being inspired by what they see.
- Open dialogue with customers wherever and whenever possible. Whether it’s through a Facebook comment, or Instagram message, or private email; always take the opportunity to communicate with them and reply to their questions/concerns. This will help grow your customer base and essentially, your business.
- Be present in the community, such as aligning with a charity or making donations. Every little bit counts. We have donated to charities and local schools in the past. Supporting the people around you is always important.
- Our genuine approach to serving our customers is also key. Treating every customer as a person, not a sale, is always appreciated.
- Lastly – keep working hard. If you’re going to be an entrepreneur and own your small business, you need to push through the challenges and get back up when you fall down. Take chances and be prepared to take risks. One thing I have learned through all this was that you invest a little, to grow a lot."
What are the future plans for fashiontruck Canada?
“Well, we really do hope to expand the business via franchising, but we would like to first see our online business up and running in the near future. We are doing so much shipping across Canada strictly because of social media requests; the online storefront will really help with processing customers’ orders so much more efficiently. It also feels like the next natural step for fashiontruck. Sometimes we will post an item on Instagram and it’s sold out before we even get it on the truck. Online sales is going to be a new challenge, so we’re very excited about it and look forward to more growth and learning as we see it come to fruition.