- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 29, 2006

You wouldn’t believe the genuine and fashionable stuff you can get off the back of a truck these days. You’ll find Rock & Republic and Genetic Denim jeans, Gap khakis, Sweetees T-shirts and one-of-a-kind dresses made entirely of patchwork scarves from the up-and-coming label Ynnub.

Mobile fashion is making inroads, bringing sought-after clothes to your door.

Caravan, a boutique on wheels housed in a 24-foot-long retrofitted Winnebago, has been weaving through New York City streets for a year. This summer, Gap took its show on the road, traveling from California to New York to hawk its summer favorites from a bus. Both operations say they’re hits because they go where people live — and where they work.

“We’re busy because people are busy. We make it easy, but there’s also a lot of impulse buying and last-minute gifts,” says Akiva Glick, Caravan’s director of operations.

Caravan has found a few niche groups of shoppers: hipsters on their way to and from bars and nightclubs, busy working women and celebrities who crave privacy. Mr. Glick says he spends a lot of time parked in the trendy Meatpacking District and in Union Square — home to many college coeds and working mothers.

But does at-your-doorstep shopping take the fun out of it?

It depends on what kind of shopping you’re doing. Mobile shopping probably won’t replace the leisure trip to the mall that also usually involves friends and a meal, but it makes “on-a-mission” shopping — when you need something specific and you need it now — much easier, says James Ireland Baker, editorial development director of Real Simple magazine.

“Who doesn’t need more time? Having shopping come to you helps. Anything that can free up leisure time is probably a good idea,” Mr. Baker says. Mobile shopping seems to fit with the larger trend toward consumer customization, he adds. Overall, retailers and service providers are dissecting exactly what their customers want and then giving it to them, he says.

Caravan founder Claudine Gumbel says her customers like clothes with either a cool or kitschy factor. A black cashmere turtleneck, no matter how beautiful it might be, wouldn’t do well because people don’t come in looking for staples, she says.

“We want to have trendy, emerging designers but also a name that’s getting buzz,” Miss Gumbel explains. The strapless jersey jumpsuits and organic cotton T-shirts hanging on the racks one recent day fit with the vibe of the store, which had a flat-screen TV playing “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” in the background.

It’s not uncommon for shoppers to walk in wearing a stained shirt or not-quite-right pants and walk out wearing their purchase, sometimes even leaving their old clothes behind, Mr. Glick says.

The shop also sees its fair share of tourists who buy something to say they got it in a store-camper, he adds. Caravan is the last stop on a tour of favorite city haunts from “Sex and the City.” (The “Sex and the City” link to Caravan is that it sells clothes from Heatherette, a brand championed by show costume designer Patricia Field.)

Earlier this summer, Gap drove its Rock Color bus from California to New York, blaring its music and selling brightly colored T-shirts, hoodie sweatshirts and board shorts along the way. It also had a seemingly endless supply of rainbow love beads it gave away for free to passers-by. The store was especially busy in that post-lunch lull that many people experience at work — right around 2 or 3 p.m., reports Eric Rutherford, who served as master of ceremonies but functioned like a store manager.

One grandmother spent $420 on clothes for her granddaughter, asking the “roadies,” aka the sales staff, what would be considered “cool.” The grandmother said the mobile store was more approachable for her than a store where she would feel out of place, according to Mr. Rutherford.

At first, the Rock Color bus was seen more as a one-time promotional tool to complement the brand’s Summer of Love theme, Gap spokeswoman Erica Archambault says, but the company is considering doing it again with more of a retail focus.

A bus might serve well as a back-to-school sales vehicle, and plans are in the works to incorporate a mobile store into the all-important holiday season.

The company hired a real bus driver who sat next to a cash register that rang up sales equal to those in a medium-size Gap store on a typical summer weekday. People could pay with credit cards, but returns and exchanges had to be handled at permanent stores. A trailer stocked with additional items followed the bus so there always would be a supply of T-shirts.

Caravan recently added a brick-and-mortar presence to alleviate some of the company’s growing pains, such as inventory and returns. Because the Winnebago has limited space, it typically has on hand just a few garments in each size and style, so it’s not uncommon to run out of a hot item. However, an onboard computer is hooked up to the store, allowing immediate inventory checks.

If the same garment is at the store, sometimes the truck goes back to restock, or sometimes Mr. Glick will pick it up at the store and drop it off at a customer’s residence or workplace.

Mobility goes a long way toward customer service, Mr. Glick says.

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