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How the Owner of a Profitable Mobile Boutique Drives her Business

One recent morning, Laura Layton, the owner of Tin Lizzie, a fashion boutique on wheels, was only a block away from her destination when a ball joint flew off her truck and the front end collapsed.

“Luckily, I was only going ten miles an hour,” says Layton, who was heading to Artscape, the nation’s largest free festival in Baltimore, with her usual cargo of colorful dresses, bags, scarves, artisan jewelry, and hand-made gifts to sell from her mobile shop. “Artscape was my best event last year and I didn’t want to miss it.”

Unruffled, she had her mechanic tow the truck and contacted a nearby friend, who sent her boyfriend with a pickup truck (and a tent) to help Layton move her merchandise to her designated parking spot at the fair. Within hours, Tin Lizzy was open for business. Such are the infrequent perils of operating out of a 1997 Grumman step-up truck.

Tin Lizzy Truck

Rolling with the Punches

“When you’re in this business, you have to roll with the punches,” she says (advice that also came in handy the day her curtain dressing room collapsed on a shopper). “Overcoming challenges gives you confidence,” adds Layton, 27, who launched Tin Lizzy in April 2014 with a mission to sell only fair-trade, and ethically or locally made goods.

Since then, she has logged more than 12,000 miles and, this year, parked at some 40 events around the Mid-Atlantic region. “I love going to my customers, instead of waiting and hoping they will come to me,” says Layton, who went mobile after deciding that a brick and mortar option was too costly.

In a typical week, she is on the road five days, connecting with customers by posting her itinerary on her Shopify website. “Beer and wine, and weekend music festivals are the best venues,” she says. “People come through the parking lot for ice and food. There’s not a lot to do in the afternoon before the music starts so they like to shop.”

Shoppers may find her parked outside of their local Whole Foods market (she is invited to park three times a month, in return for a small percentage of her sales), at Fashion Truck Fridays in Annapolis, or First Thursday Concerts in Baltimore. She may just pop up on a street next to a food truck at lunch time (special permit required) and, that night, pull into a client’s driveway for a private “girl’s night” party. “It’s like a happy hour,” she says, “and tons of fun.”

Tin Lizzy Interior

Solo Selling

As sole proprietor and sole driver, how does she manage it all? Apps and software help.

“They’re not cutting edge,” she says, “but I’ve learned a lot after trial and error over 18 months in business.”

Here are her essentials:

  • Google Calendar: “I color code upcoming events to make sure I know what’s ahead for the year and don’t double book.”
  • Google Maps: “Because my truck is noisy, I hooked up a Bose speaker so that I could hear the directions, which really helps because getting lost is so annoying.”
  • Canva: “It’s a quick, easy way to create great graphics, when you don’t know Photoshop.”

Layton uses PayPal Here to manage credit card transactions and personal banking apps to track cash flow, and she is now researching inventory management software like Vend to synch her retail sales with her web sales.

Tin Lizzy

Her Mondays are dedicated to sleeping late and taking care of backend duties like ordering, cleaning, updating her online shop, and finding places to park.

Managing social media for her business eats up about 15 percent of her time. “It takes a long time to get your name out there,” says Layton. “You just have to stay at it and try different things. Right now, Instagram works best for me, especially if I use it to build excitement, like posting a sneak peak of a new bracelet with a comment like, ‘look what will be in my truck tomorrow,’ and then say where I will be.”

When Layton sells outside of Maryland, where her business is registered, she fills out special events tax forms (“out-of-state sales tax gets very confusing”) and turns her receipts over to her bookkeeper because, “it’s just too complicated.” (You said it, Laura. That's why Avalara designed its sales-tax management software for small business.)

Now profitable after recouping her startup costs in her first year, Layton is focused on growing her business.

“It’s exhausting, but when you have a crazy good day, you get such a rush,” she says. “I really like mobile retail. I want to be in the truck as long as I can and just see where it goes.”

Sales tax rates, rules, and regulations change frequently. Although we hope you'll find this information helpful, this blog is for informational purposes only and does not provide legal or tax advice.
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