The Genteel
February 28, 2021


Established stores like Nashville's Two Old Hippies are seeing the benefits of retail on wheels. Source:

Christina Ruiz always wanted to run her own clothing store, yet her dream was trapped behind a barrier of high rents, long lease terms and stiff competition from already-established businesses. Bricks and mortar seemed unattainable. So at the end of 2011, when her father-in-law casually suggested "an ice cream truck that sold clothing," Ruiz began re-imagining her life-long goal and considered the possibility of starting up a mobile boutique.

After connecting with the Los Angeles-based American Mobile Retail Association, she launched TopShelf boutique, San Francisco's first fashion truck. It arrived in May 2012 to plenty of fanfare, with coverage in local broadcast and print media. But as winter crept in, the outdoor festivals and special events that had been Ruiz's lifeline began to disappear.

TopShelf fashion truck - Christina Ruiz launched her TopShelf fashion truck in May 2012 to great fanfare but as the winter months arrived in San Francisco, so did a number of challenges. Source:
Christina Ruiz launched her TopShelf fashion
truck in May 2012 to great fanfare.

"I was in for a bad surprise because I just didn't really take into consideration the seasonality factor of my business," she recalls when speaking with The Genteel. "I had a really rough December last year [in 2012], [but] it was a good learning experience."

The weather, however, wasn't the only challenge that Ruiz encountered after starting her business. There were several other unexpected difficulties, such as relying mostly on weekend events, along with the lack of legislation available to support mobile businesses across America.

"I thought I would probably just do a lot of the things that the food trucks did," Ruiz comments, "but I realised really quickly that that wasn't going to work either - that [clothes] shopping and food [shopping] kind of don't go hand-in-hand. They're really different markets."

As Ruiz was "freaking out" about how to sustain her business through the winter months, an opportunity to join a local pop-up shop came along and she didn't hesitate to sign up. It was organised by online retail platform Storenvy and start-up business Storefront, which helps connect artists, designers and retailers with spaces in their local communities. The pop-up was located - and still operates - in San Francisco's Crocker Galleria.

During Ruiz's two-and-a-half-month stint within this bricks and mortar store, TopShelf was the best performer, proving that her brand could make it in a permanent space. This also led her to build a relationship with the mall's general manager. When a suitable space opened within the Crocker Galleria a few months later, Ruiz was the first one to know; in May 2013, TopShelf boutique opened in the bricks and mortar form. It now operates in conjunction with the fashion truck. The store is open Monday through Friday, while Ruiz takes the truck out on weekends.

As she explains, "once I started up the pop-up shop, I thought, 'This is so nice to just lock the door and go home - to not have to pack everything up, park the truck, get in your car and drive to your house.' It is a lot more civilised, but the truck is what makes me way more unique, so I don't know. There's definitely ebb and flow with both."

Like Ruiz, other mobile retailers across the country are also transitioning to bricks and mortar, finding ways of combing the two into one business plan. For example, Therissa Heit owns The Scarlet Gypsy Traveling Boutique, which is based in Bismarck, North Dakota.

I was in for a bad surprise because I just didn't really take into consideration the seasonality factor of my business.

While Heit likes the "novelty" of the fashion truck, she decided to head indoors for the holiday season with a pop-up shop in a local mall. For Heit, the pop-up was not about testing her brand on the bricks and mortar market; instead, it was simply a way to keep trading during the winter months. Through doing this, however, she has increased her customer base and admits her regular shoppers have been happy to find her in one place for the season. It would seem that, while mobile trucks are a popular trend, there remains unquestionable benefits to staying in one location.

Although Ruiz herself has considered closing down the fashion truck in favour of having only the store space, she notes that the combination of mobile shopping with bricks and mortar offers a unique advantage for her brand. The two are, for her business, a winning combination with the truck and store complimenting each other, and the truck acting as a "huge rolling billboard" to promote her brand.

Also jumping on this bandwagon is Nashville's Two Old Hippies, a store that opened in 2011 and launched as a fashion truck in February of 2013. Molly Bedell, who owns and operates the store with her husband Tom, says they were inspired by the food truck revolution in Nashville and also saw a huge opportunity with the city's many events and festivals.

Indeed, since opening, the Two Old Hippies truck has participated in a range of events, from private functions like shopping days for the cast and crew of popular TV show Nashville, to the Zac Brown Band's big Southern Ground Music & Food Festival.

The 22-foot truck, Bedell emphasises to The Genteel, is an extension of the Two Old Hippies store and the lifestyle brand she and Tom have built up over the years in Nashville and Aspen. The items they stock depend on the event they are going to, but always represent the mixture of music, fashion and home goods sold in their permanent store. Bedell agrees that the truck and retail store work well together, describing the mobile boutique as "fun" and "a great marketing vehicle" for her business.

"If you look at other ways of marketing - a billboard or a piece in a magazine, [the truck] is cheaper than that. In the long run, I think it's a much better vehicle for getting your name out there in front of a lot of people. You can even just drive around."

After participating in a pop-up shop, Christina Ruiz moved into a permanent brick and mortar location in San Francisco in May 2013. Source:
After participating in a pop-up shop, Ruiz
moved into a permanent brick and mortar
location in San Francisco in May 2013.

Still, Bedell, like Ruiz, also stresses that the truck is not just a simple pack-up-and-go operation. As mobile retail is a relatively new industry, many cities, including Nashville, lack the legislation needed to support and regulate the trucks.

Another important consideration that comes with the truck is to not encroach on bricks and mortar retailers, who carry a heavier burden with rent costs and employees, in Bedell's opinion. "Before we head into any area that does have retail, I make sure that my team is talking to whomever is there ahead of time and just kind of scouts it out. If they have products that we carry, we don't bring those; we bring something completely different, because it doesn't help us to have the same products."

While the fashion truck has been a fairly easy and cost-effective way to extend the Two Old Hippies brand, Bedell recognises that it would be challenging to base the business entirely on the truck alone, explaining that brand loyalty is more difficult to create if people don't know where to find you. Plus, she notes that Nashville doesn't have a big mobile retail or flea market culture as in Southern California, where the first fashion trucks originally popped up.

"I think it's cool though," she adds. "Back in the day, there were encyclopedias that went door to door, there was lingerie, there was Avon. It's a way for an individual to try and do something and not have to work for somebody else. It's an entrepreneurial kind of mentality and there's nothing wrong with that."

As for Ruiz, she says all the challenges have been worth it for her, with the truck leading her back to her original retail dream, even though that was not the goal when she launched the TopShelf mobile boutique. "It was my way to get over the barriers to enter the market," she says. "I wasn't able to open a store, [so the truck] was like my coming out - my launch into my business and building my brand." The two ideas have now become a successful entrepreneurial marriage.

Related: Trucking Fashion Along

Related: Trailblazing: Emily Benson of The Fashion Truck



Sign up to receive a weekly dispatch from The Genteel.

About Us

The Genteel unearths the forces shaping global fashion and design through the lens of business, culture, society and best kept secrets. 

More about us

Our Contributors

A worldwide collective of contributors currently form The Genteel. On a daily basis our team dispatches thought-provoking and insightful articles from the streets of Oslo, Toronto, Beirut, Moscow, United Arab Emirates, Seoul and beyond.