Mobile businesses reel in profits

vbridges@newsobserver.comMay 20, 2013 

  • The mobile marketplace

    Getting into the mobile marketplace creates flexibility and the opportunity for small-business owners to expand without investing in a brick-and-mortar location. Here are some things to know:

    •  Get the proper permits for your type of business; rules and costs vary depending on the city or county where the business will operate. Mobile food markets need different permits and inspections than mobile vets.

    •  Stay organized and plan. Mobile vendors should stick to strict schedules so customers know where to find them.

    •  Take advantage of mobile applications that can be used for business functions, including accounting, recording travel expenses and scanning credit cards.

    U.S. Small Business Administration: sba.gov; NFIB: http://bit.ly/19VhhMN

— As the LoMo Market parked its white truck and trailer in the Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhood, a line of customers formed.

Two LoMo crew members got to work setting up vibrant lilies, a cooler filled with North Carolina seafood and a checkout table.

Inside the trailer, the pair straightened up the small store that is filled with local goods, including fruits and vegetables, sweets, meats and coffee by the neighborhood’s Beanpeace Roastery.

The mobile marketplace – which includes businesses such as vets, health care services, car washers, dog groomers and computer repair services – is an opportunity to expand a customer base beyond one set location, reduce overhead expenses and differentiate your business, said David Grant, chairman of Raleigh SCORE, which offers free counseling and other services to small-business owners across the Triangle.

“The fact you can bring your job to the customer, instead of your customer coming to you, that is a big differentiator,” Grant said.

The LoMo Market, which is celebrating its first year in business this month, is taking the concept of mobile retail to a new level – one that marries farmers-market fresh with convenience.

Over the past year, the business has set up three markets in truck and trailer combos that circle the Triangle weekly and deliver goods from about 30 to 40 vendors. LoMo sells products from about 75 different companies throughout the year.

The weekly stops, which will hit 41 by the end of the month, include wellness centers, neighborhoods and businesses. The business model consists of creating visible, accessible, safe stops and a reliable schedule that allows vested customers to incorporate LoMo visits into their weekly routine, said Guenevere Abernathy, 40, who founded the LoMo Market with her husband, Michael Lemanski.

“You can go through and pick up a few things, and 30 minutes later, you can have some local food on your table,” Abernathy said.

The mobile concept can also build flexibility into a business schedule, cut out corporate red tape, and expand capacity confined to a standard location, small-business owners said.

Here’s how three businesses, including LoMo, are succeeding with the mobile concept://

A vet on the move

Heather Moeser, 38, started Downtown Mobile Vet in Raleigh in 2010 after working in a clinic for two years.

The veterinarian said the clinic hours kept getting longer and the workloads larger.

“I was tired of seeing 40 patients in a day, and I felt like the quality just wasn’t there,” Moeser said.

Moeser, who works out of her minivan and uses her cellphone as the office number, chose to open a mobile practice because it was affordable and flexible, she said.

She has to meet the same requirements as stationary vet practices, including inspections from the N.C. Veterinary Medical Board.

“Basically, you are using the owner’s home, where the pet is most comfortable – you are using that as your exam room – and you bring all the tools that you need,” she said.

If a patient requires surgery, Moeser picks up the animal, does the procedure at a local clinic, and drops off the animal when it’s convenient.

The caseload is limited by time, she said.

“You have a really good day if you saw six patients,” she said. “It just takes everything down to a slower pace. I feel like I am a creative person so you have to think outside of the box.”

Moeser, who has about 200 clients and one part-time employee, plans to expand this year and bring on another vet.

Car detail at home

Karl Murphy, owner of Carolina Auto Spa, said he tested out a mobile arm of his car washing and detailing business after he had to turn customers away because weekend appointments at his Cary and Apex locations were booked up.

In 2011, Murphy started experimenting with mobile services and added one truck to provide washing and detailing at customers’ homes and workplaces. Customers, who typically brought their car into the store once or twice a year, were seeking the mobile service eight to 10 times a year, Murphy said.

“People have more money than time,” Murphy, 45, said.

Murphy also sought out companies, such as used-car dealers, that might need regular detailing services – along with offering the service at office buildings and in neighborhoods on certain days. He also has incorporated property cleaning services into his offerings.

The first year was hectic, Murphy said. It required him to create and monitor complex systems to ensure quality and efficiency. He chose senior employees to handle the mobile jobs.

“Once you leave your location, the level of complexity is much higher,” Murphy said. “The quality is critical.”

Now Carolina Auto Spa has seven trucks on the road, and the role of running a mobile truck has become a sought-after position.

“Our mobile staff is a position of honor and a promotion path for our team,” he said.

In 2012, Carolina Auto Spa’s revenue increased 60 percent, Murphy said, a third because of the addition of mobile services.

“This year we are forecasting, about another 30 percent growth, of which half will be mobile,” he said.

Fresh food trucks

Abernathy and Lemanski launched LoMo in May 2012 with one truck to test the concept. They eventually added two more trucks, and hope to have five on the road this year. They expect to start making a profit after that point, Abernathy said.

Key aspects to making the model work, Abernathy said, include staying on top of the schedule, picking convenient, visual locations, and balancing demand with the fluctuating fresh offerings.

New stops are established by using a system that mixes community suggestions, crowd funding and market testing.

Nominations for new locations are vetted by evaluating issues such as safety, visibility, population density and required permits, Abernathy said. If the stop meets the criteria, it advances to a “Be a Market Maker” campaign, in which people pledge, starting at $25, to show their support for a stop. The stops with the highest pledge total will become LoMo locations. Pledges to successful stop suggestions become LoMo credits. Pledges to the stops that didn’t materialize can be used as a credit or refunds.

The system confirms there is a core group of people that support the market, which will stop at the location for at least eight weeks, Abernathy said.

“The goal is to make it continuous, but it is really about the customer showing up and wanting us there,” Abernathy said.

Bridges: 919-829-8917

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