Calgary retailers hit the road during downturn

As Calgary's economy continues to sputter, some of the city's retailers are starting their engines and hitting the road. Mobile shops are springing up in Canada's oil capital as businesses look for ways to keep their overhead low during the downturn.

When the economy gets tough, resilient retailers take to the streets

Nicki Prins will take her Sublime Mobile Couture truck right to her customers' doors. (Erin Collins/CBC)

Brady Adkins peers tentatively into a long white bus parked on a bustling downtown Calgary street. 

As the warm sounds of music played on vinyl wash over him, Adkins' eyes widen as he scans the hundreds of albums neatly packed in bins along the walls.

"Never bought a record off a bus before," he says. "Not a bad idea to go for it."

And with that, Calgary's Beatnik Bus has another customer, another convert in a rolling retail revolution. 

Kristin Poch has been running her Beatnik Bus for about a year and says it helps her keep the overhead for her business low during tough economic times in Calgary. (Erin Collins/CBC)

The Beatnik Bus is the brainchild of Kristin Poch, who inherited more than 15,000 albums from her father after he had a serious heart attack several years ago.

Poch's Dad survived, but his dream of one day opening a record store didn't, so Kristin took matters into her own hands, converting a bus into her very own mobile record shop.

"You kind of come into this old van, you are not really sure what you are coming into and it is stocked with all the old classic records."

Of course, it wasn't just the cool factor that attracted Poch to the idea of a shop on wheels; she says mobile retail also makes good business sense.

Customers sift through hundreds of vinyl records for sale on Calgary's Beatnik Bus. (Erin Collins/CBC)

"I am not paying rent, I am not paying my utilities and I am able to kind of seek out my clientele so I can kind of pop up at festivals and events and curbside," she says.

Poch says the ability to keep her overhead low and to nimbly respond to niche customers makes mobile retail a perfect fit for Calgary during the city's current economic slowdown.

"Right now we are in a downturn economy and that is where really creative entrepreneurs come out, so I am excited to see what happens and who jumps on the bandwagon."

Nicki Prins certainly has.

Prins' more polished Sublime Mobile Couture clothing shop is parked right next to the Beatnik Bus. Prins, who has been running her frock shop on wheels for a little over a year, says the cachet of her mobile store gives her an edge.

Ty Tang tries on a blazer inside the Sublime Mobile Couture clothing shop. (Erin Collins/CBC)

"With food trucks exploding and all of the stuff going on in L.A., I really wanted to deliver fashion in a different way that was just unique," Prins says.

So far, so good. Prins looks on as a half dozen curious customers, including local shopper Ty Tang, explore the 55-square-metre (600-square-foot) retail space.

"I sort of love it," Ty said. "I like if the mobile truck is selling what I need at that very moment, and if I see it on the corner, I usually will dash out and take a look."

That convenience is a big part of the attraction of mobile retail and something that Prins has tapped into by taking her trucks right to her customers, offering them private home-shopping parties.

"I kind of come to you and you kind of find me on the street side and it makes it more exciting and it is just a different sort of experience," Prins says.

Mobile retail stores are not just a Calgary phenomenon; they have popped up across Canada in recent years from Vancouver to Toronto.

But Prins sees them really taking off in Calgary if the economy in Canada's energy capital remains sluggish.

"I think there are a lot of entrepreneurs out there looking for a different way to deliver their goods and also maybe a little more cost-effective," she says.

For now, Calgary's retail trucks are part of a pilot project that will run for the next year. The mobile shops taking part are only allowed to set up in certain areas of the city and have to pay for a monthly permit, as well as any parking fees.

But Calgary's mobile retailers hope that somewhere down the road, they will find a more permanent place by their city's curbs.

About the Author

Erin Collins

Senior reporter

Erin Collins is an award-winning senior reporter with CBC National News based in Calgary.