Bess Caplan went grocery shopping Saturday at Whole Foods in Columbia and found an unexpected bonus — five boutiques on wheels parked just outside the grocer's door.
With her 3-year-old daughter, Miriam, in tow, Caplan browsed the mobile retailers and bought earrings as gifts at one of them, Urban Pearl. The five shops had set up on the supermarket's plaza to mark Small Business Saturday, a 5-year-old movement backed by American Express urging consumers to "Shop Small" at local, independently owned stores, restaurants and other businesses around the holidays.
"I wish there were more of them," Caplan said of the mobile concept. "I can't stand the mall, and I like to support small business."
The small business day, following Black Friday when most traffic goes to malls and well-known store brands, was designed to help small merchants compete for holiday sales. In addition to the Columbia event, activities were on tap in Annapolis and city neighborhoods such as Hampden, Pigtown, Federal Hill, Waverly, Hamilton-Lauraville and East Monument Street.
Mobile retailers are a small but growing niche of independent shops modeled after the popular food truck phenomenon. Owners say they like the flexibility of bringing their wares to customers at colleges, festivals, farmers' markets and neighborhoods — even to private parties. The mobile option can be a less costly alternative to permanent stores, retailers said.
"It's a great way to do retail now, with rising rents and the costs associated with brick and mortar," said Laura Layton, owner of Tin Lizzy, a former delivery truck stocked with handmade jewelry, handbags scarves and other merchandise from India, Nepal and Guatemala. "It's a unique experience."
The group in Columbia consisted of three vans, a school bus and a trailer, some complete with heat and makeshift dressing rooms. Their owners drive them from spot to spot, though Alyssa Coster, owner of the two-month-old Charm City Mobile Boutique, hauls her shop with a Jeep.
Layton, who has been in business since March, operates her truck five days a week, often parking outside a friend's vintage furniture store and at festivals and markets.
Whole Foods organized Saturday's event and invited each retailer. By late morning, the trucks saw a steady stream of traffic. Some customers stopped in before going grocery shopping. Others came specifically for the boutiques, which alert customers to their whereabouts through social media and websites.
"Wherever she is … I'm a follower," said Tiara Elman of Gaithersburg, a customer of Layton's who bought a necklace made in India from Tin Lizzy and clothing from other trucks.
Stacey Chambers, owner of Gogo's Retread Threads, has been operating the painted school bus she calls "Elsa" for four years. She drives it to farmers' markets in Baltimore and Towson, Morgan State University, Maryland Institute College of Art and "anywhere the road takes me," she said.
Customers Emily Freedman and Rachel Robbins, both 21-year-old University of Delaware students from Columbia, checked through vintage and "gently used" clothing that hung from racks where the seats used to be.
"I think it's a cool idea," Robbins said of mobile shops. "They can go where they're needed."
By late morning, Shawn Theron already had takers for his abstract paintings on scrap wood, which he has sold from Sogh Art Truck since April. Theron, 41, who worked as a bartender and restaurant manager before focusing on art a decade ago, enjoys "taking the art world to the folks. … The experience of going around to different places versus a tent [at a festival] is tenfold. People want to come and check it out."
Still, he conceded, mobile selling has its drawbacks. Truck maintenance, for one, and fuel costs. His truck gets "seven miles to the gallon," Theron said.
Chambers, Gogo's owner, said she'd like to see more truck rallies and other events where small businesses work together.
"Small businesses are powerful, but we look at each other as adversaries," she said. "As we work as more of a collective, we're powerful."