Does the future of retail have four tires and a trailer hitch?
Joel and Lucia Kamm, husband-and-wife founders of the Woburn startup Flexetail, are betting it does. The company’s trio of retail trailers have recently been busy, selling Bruins gear outside TD Garden, canned iced coffee outside Copley Place Mall, and Gillette’s new heated razor on the Greenway.
But it’s a business with plenty of challenges, from navigating municipal permitting and regulations to the labor costs of hauling a trailer from place to place for different events.
Boston has seen mobile retail trucks before, but often they’ve been built by individual businesses selling products like sneakers or vintage clothing. The idea behind Flexetail is that its 142-square-foot mobile store can be rented by the day, week, or month by a company that wants to try selling or demonstrating a product in a specific location.
The cost, Joel Kamm says, starts at $400 per day, but declines with longer rental periods.
“More and more people expect you to be where they are, as opposed to going to visit your store at a location that you choose,” Kamm says.
And a limited time period can help create a sense of urgency, he adds: “The mall store will be there forever, but we’re saying that you can only try this coffee or hat or rowing machine at this limited location for a limited time. It creates FOMO,” or “fear of missing out.”
On the Tuesday morning after Memorial Day weekend, a Flexetail trailer was parked on a brick plaza outside the Neiman Marcus store near Back Bay Station. Staffers from Elemental Beverage Co. were offering a taste of the company’s iced coffee and selling six-packs of the brew. But there was not much FOMO in evidence; Elemental employees were trying to flag down commuters hustling to work and offer them a sample of their “snap-chilled” Ethiopian coffee. Many kept walking, but a few stopped.
Kamm’s background is in designing retail environments and displays for companies like Gillette and New Balance. He started sketching the Flexetail trailer on a flight to Minneapolis two summers ago and had the first prototype built by April 2018. Walking around the trailer, he points out the hydraulic base that goes from driving mode (up) to parked mode (down) at the touch of a button, providing stability and allowing shoppers to enter the trailer by climbing just one step.
There’s a glass door and big windows so people can see inside, even when the store is closed, along with solar panels on the roof that can charge a battery that runs the lights and air conditioner when the trailer is off the grid. It can also be plugged into a standard power outlet, as this one is.
The signage on the Flexetail unit that Elemental is using this summer outside Neiman Marcus is pretty subtle — a stylized EB over the door, maybe two feet high and two feet wide. But Kamm says there are plans for bolder visuals.
Another beverage startup, Providence-based Granny Squibb’s Organic Iced Tea, was the first customer for Flexetail last year, at an outdoor festival.
“We sell a $2 product, and so the cost of these events usually outweighs the monetary gain,” explains managing partner Kelley McShane. “We think of events mainly as marketing.”
So McShane says she was “incredibly surprised and pleased” she could sell enough tea to turn a profit. Why? The Flexetail trailer “stands out,” she says. “It definitely attracts more people than a tent. We have made 10 times, sometimes 20 times, what we have made in a tent at the same event.”
There’s also less set-up time required, McShane adds. The company plans to use the Flexetail again at the Newport Folk Festival in July.
Bill Aulet of MIT’s entrepreneurship center was one of the first to see the prototype Flexetail trailer last year; Lucia Kamm had earned her MBA at MIT. Aulet considers it part of the trend of “moving away from more rigid long-term commitments and to a more agile business structure. Remember the old days, when you had to sign up for a five-year lease for a fixed amount of real estate?” In that sense, Flexetail is similar to the kind of office space offered by WeWork, CIC, and other operators of co-working spaces, Aulet says.
That flexibility can be a plus, agrees Jonathan Berk, a Boston real estate consultant and organizer of a recent conference on reimagining local retail. But having a “here today, gone tomorrow” mobile store makes it tough to maintain momentum, Berk says.
“One of the benefits to physical brick and mortar is that you can build a loyal following to your physical location, and they know where to find you when they want to show it off to their friends or come back for another visit,” Berk says.
And while the notion is unique, Aulet says there will be other challenges, like trying to create competitive barriers with patents — which cost money. Also, how can Flexetail become a national rather than regional player? That might entail having fleets of trailers in every major city, similar to Avis or U-Haul. Again, capital required.
Kamm says he’s talking to individual investors and venture capital firms, hoping to raise a first round of funding for what has so far been a bootstrapped business. (The trailers initially cost $250,000 each to build, but Kamm says he has gotten that down to a little under $50,000.) Another challenge that he cites is helping the companies that rent Flexetail trailers find good spots to place them; Kamm originally hoped to just design, build, and rent the units, but he says that many of the “early adopters are smaller companies that need help doing the outreach.”
Fees for a given location may range from $50 a day to $1,500 for bigger corporations, he says. (The retailer using the trailer pays that cost; it isn’t built into the trailer rental fee.) In most municipalities, parking on the street to sell a product isn’t legal.
They’re not building many new malls these days. But it remains to be seen whether Flexetail can find sufficient funding, customers, and prime locations to be a significant part of retail’s future.Scott Kirsner can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.