FOR people wanting to start their own business, a vendor cart might be the answer.
These two-wheeled pushcarts, frequently seen on street corners and busy shopping malls, offer a relatively inexpensive route into the retail trade.
The cost of entering the traditional retailing market can be prohibitive - with an expensive store lease, plus the cost of construction, decor, fixtures, and merchandise. And the store could still fold if sales are poor.
For many people, this can all seem too much of a risky investment. They would rather start small and test the market first.
Not only are vendor carts mobile, but they are small enough to keep overhead low.
The idea has taken off and spread throughout the country. Rob Smolund, director of operations for the Downtown Crossing Association, oversees carts in Boston's central shopping area. ``They have proliferated in the malls in the last five years,'' he says. Now pushcarts and kiosks are common, he adds.
Maeze Healy, manager of specialty retail for nearby Faneuil Hall Marketplace Inc., says pushcarts offer a flexible way to start a business. Faneuil Hall has about 120 merchants in its pushcart program. ``Each week new people are putting in carts, and it provides opportunity for new artists and new concepts,'' she says.
Vendor-cart merchants pay a monthly rent for the cart and space. The amount varies. In Boston's Prudential Center, the rent is $1,100 a month, according to Judy Batson, specialty leasing manager at the Prudential.
In Faneuil Hall, the rent depends on location, Ms. Healey says. The management charges a base rent and gets a percentage of sales, but the prices are negotiable, she adds.
Even within the cart industry, there are chains and franchises, but most carts are still owned individually. Tom D'Angelo owns an espresso cart in Downtown Crossing and says, ``A cart can offer a better price and more convenience, theoretically.''
NANCY Smith, owner of a hair accessories cart, agrees. ``Anything in the big stores I can get,'' she says. ``Most of the stuff I carry in the cart is different and unique.'' She gets most of her merchandise from New York, California, and third-world countries, she adds.
Vendor carts sell anything from peppermills and pet supplies to homemade crafts. Healey cites the rubber-stamp cart as an example of one that has since grown into a huge business.
Mr. D'Angelo says carts were once high-profit ventures, but increasing rents have cut into their comfortable margins. The cart industry, he says, ``survives off lots of new vendors with inspiration and with a gleam in their eye.''
Although he once wanted to expand in the cart business, he now wants a store. ``After all the time and energy invested, look at what you get out of it.... I have to do the hardest thing possible to operate,'' he says, referring to pushing the cart around, using propane for his energy source and to counter the cold weather.
``There's a whole vending culture,'' he adds. ``For people who are into it, this is their life and I'm not into it.''
Ms. Smith, on the other hand, says she would not trade her cart for anything. She has built up a loyal following and knows many of her customers by name. ``Not everyone is a cart person. It takes a special personality,'' she says. The appeal, besides being your own boss, she adds, is that ``you get the profits and you make more if you work for yourself.'' The one negative aspect, she claims, is providing her own insurance.
For those considering the investment, D'Angelo offers some advice: ``Think it out 100 percent and be prepared to work really hard.''
Smith says discipline is crucial. ``It takes more to work for yourself than to work for others.'' But she says all the anxiety about whether she has made the right decisions about purchasing new merchandise is worth it when someone tells her: ``You have the best stuff I've seen.''