Grasshopper’s new store-in-a-van will deliver the goods to customers.
Food carts have become a staple of the downtown dining scene. Could mobile shops be the future of retail?
Karen Tardrew, owner of Grasshopper Goods, thinks so. She’s in the process of converting a 1977 Freightliner Step Van into a store on wheels. It’s a boxy truck comparable to a small UPS truck, says Tardrew. In essence, Grasshopper Goods pulls up, the back of the van is opened up, and presto! It’s a 200-square-foot store. The mobile shop will even have dressing rooms.
Grasshopper Good’s merchandise includes clothing, housewares, gifts and jewelry. Clothing is from small-scale producers, often locally made (as are the other products). As she prepares to launch into a true mobile boutique, Tardrew has been making connections with artists and makers and organizing pop-up events. In mid-April, her mobile store will be ready to hit the road.
“A big part of this for me is supporting small makers locally and around the country. All the items are made in the USA or fair trade,” says Tardrew. “Mobile businesses are the cutting edge of the field. Everyone is talking about online shopping. But people still want to touch and feel and be part of it. What’s so cool about mobile boutiques is we go to the customers. And I can cater what products I sell based on where I go.”
Grasshopper Goods will be the city’s first mobile boutique. It’s currently the only member of the American Mobile Retail Association in Wisconsin. But when Tardrew started researching where she could set up shop in Madison, her shop on wheels ran into a lot of red tape.
“There are probably 500 trucks all over the country doing this right now. But unfortunately, Madison’s regulations are really unfriendly to boutique trucks,” says Tardrew. “I’m not allowed to be in a residential area. I’m not allowed to sell outside a business. And I can’t just park on a street because of the size of my van — which is the typical size of a mobile boutique.”
Currently, Grasshopper Goods is allowed to operate during special events. Tardrew plans on setting up the mobile business at a new Thursday night farmers’ market on Gilman Street and at other events. But city statutes will interfere with her plans to vend at private parties, downtown during lunch hour and to organize pop-up events with other businesses.
“I’m technically considered a peddler by the city, and the rules are antiquated. It was absolutely shocking to me,” says Tardrew. “Just like food carts, mobile boutiques are a great way for entrepreneurs to start small businesses. If the city wants more minority-owned and women-owned businesses, this is a way to do it.”
Tardrew has put mobile retail vending on the radar of Meghan Blake-Horst, Madison’s street vending coordinator. Blake-Horst says she’s helping get the conversation started, but changing current rules for mobile retail means changes to zoning ordinances. She expects that several committees — and eventually the Common Council — will need to weigh in before the city can update its current policy on “peddlers.”
“It’s not something where we can say, ‘Oh yeah. Do that. Let’s go.’ We have to go through the whole process,” says Blake-Horst, who notes mobile retail has already been discussed this spring by the Vending Oversight Committee. “We are seeing a lot more [mobile] vendors in general, and I know that’s it’s a trend around the country. Right now, the big barrier seems to be not being able to vend on private property.”
Tardew's first area event will be April 20 from 5 to 8 p.m. at Atomic Koi, 2685 Research Park Drive, Fitchburg.
Grasshopper Goods, 608-571-2467, grasshoppergoods.com