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Mobile businesses bring the store to you

Two-income couples, convenience spur growth in at-home services, from pet care to computer repair.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 1, 2007



Whenever a sleek, white van pulls up in front of a large Cape in Wrentham, Mass., neighbors know that this is grooming day for the family's two dogs, Marley and Toy.

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The van tells the story: Cheerful images of dogs and children decorate the sides, along with intriguing words: Zoomin Groomin and Mobile Pet Spa. Inside, state-of-the-art equipment enables groomers to wash, dry, and clip pets of all sizes.

"It offers a very peaceful environment," says Donna Sheehey, who bills herself as chief dog officer, or CDO, of Zoomin Groomin. "Pets think they're home the whole time."

"Have van, will travel" is becoming the mantra for a growing number of mobile businesses, both independent and franchised, whose colorful vehicles snake through cities and suburbs, delivering products and services to time-short customers. Specially outfitted vans offer new opportunities for mobility in everything from pet pampering to paper shredding, computer repair, auto detailing, and windshield replacement. Doctors may no longer make house calls, but entrepreneurs do, aided by cellphones, global positioning systems, and the Internet.

Seven percent of franchises now have mobile and vehicle-based operations, according to a survey by FRANdata for the International Franchise Association. Their ranks have increased in the past decade, spurred by two-income households and a gradual aging of the population, says Darrell Johnson, president of FRANdata.

For customers, the advantages are obvious. "It's convenience," says Scott Walker, president of Screenmobile in Thousand Palms, Calif., a mobile franchise that builds window screens on site. "The customers we're dealing with are getting used to having things come to their doorstep. Their time is so valuable that they'd rather go play golf ... than do a household repair themselves."

Older people also appreciate at-home services, Ms. Sheehey says. Some of her customers have elderly pets that would be hard to transport to a grooming salon.

Speed is another advantage. "Usually, if the service is performed on-site, it gets done faster than if the customer has to take something somewhere," says David Urban, professor of marketing at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

Convenience costs: At Zoomin Groomin, prices range from $60 to $90. "It's definitely a premium service," Ms. Sheehey says.

But Xavier Lanier, a writer in San Francisco who runs a mobile technology website, www.notebooks.com, calls time "our most valuable asset."

"You have to look at the gap between what it would cost to take your things somewhere and what it costs for this service," he says. "It's important to factor in the dollar value of your own time when considering this." Gas and parking also add up.

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