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Tired of minuscule profits? Consider opening mini-mall
Indoor markets offer some big opportunities

Do you have a home-based business you'd like to expand but don't really know how? Maybe you feel you're not large enough to go out on your own, and the idea of sharing space with another business person one-on-one just doesn't appeal to you. What other opportunities are there to grow?

The mini-mall opportunity.We are seeing the forerunners of a new kind of business that is springing up to fill space formerly occupied by abandoned supermarkets and department stores: mini-malls. Don't let the name put you off -- they go by a variety of names -- but this type of indoor operation is growing by leaps and bounds. If you already have one in your town, great! Join in. If not, consider opening one with a few friends of like mind.

Mini-malls are doing quite well, and the benefit to both the entrepreneur wanting another outlet for his goods and services as well as the benefits to the entrepreneur supplying that outlet are terrific. Here's some information on the concept:

-- Finding your mini-mall: Obviously, the first thing to do is find an abandoned building such as a former grocery store or other large building. The owners of the building know they will wait an awfully long time for another major tenant, and if you can supply them with enough to cover their overhead and pay a few bucks extra, they will probably jump at the opportunity. Remember, they are losing money every day the building stays empty. Find a commercial real estate agent who will work for you, not one who may have ties to the landlord.

Look for any place where large warehouses, former supermarkets or former department stores were located. If there is adequate parking, your customers will come. Location may be the most important thing in real estate; but parking is the most important for mini-malls.

-- How a mini-mall works: Once you have access to the building, begin the renovation. Mark the floor area off into rows of 10-by-10- foot booths, back to back. Leave a reasonable aisle between rows, enough so that customers can push buggies, drag kids, stand and talk -- in short, to do the same things they do in any grocery or market. Erect simple frameworks for your booths (corner pillars and wall headers and footers). Do not put in walls, ceilings, floors or other such amenities: that's the task of your tenants. Provide tenants with a simple three-sided 2-by-4 framework for their space and let them finish or decorate as they wish. It's your task to provide heat, cooling, lights, basic electrical outlets, minimal janitorial services and security.

Have an electrician wire the booths so each has a couple of outlets. Charge your booth person a small fee to offset the cost of electricity. Don't bother putting in meters -- just add a little if they'll use more than a few lights and a cash register. Alternately, you can divide the estimated total electrical cost by the number of booths and add that to the basic cost of a booth.

Rent the booths to would-be entrepreneurs for around $50 to $100 a week on a four- or eight-week contract, payable in advance. Tenants agree to sell only new merchandise and sign a statement that the products they offer are legal (no knock-offs, etc.) You aren't liable for this, but posting a sign with your requirements will tell the public you are at least trying.

The business is open to the public only on weekends (Friday from noon to 8 p.m., all day Saturday and Sunday from noon to 8 p.m., for example). You will hire a security guard and secure the area during the closed time.

Small home-based businesses wanting to expand their limited markets will be your first booth customers. You will also have your share of artists and craftsmen, but don't let them dominate your spaces. You don't want to turn this into an arts and crafts location.

-- Competition: You won't have any real competition except for a similar outlet. In fact, some of the major stores in your area may contract space from you to open discount outlets when they see you are serving a different clientele than they normally reach. Try for a good mix, but don't discriminate just because you already have two or three similar vendors.

-- How much to charge the public: Charge $2 per person to enter, but freely hand out 50 percent discount coupons for the next visit. This fee should cover most of your basic costs, with booth rental and special services to the entrepreneurs covering the remaining. Reserve food vending for yourself if possible, but don't restrict restaurants from opening specialty outlets in your spaces.

-- How to advertise: Most of your walk-in customers will come from areas you wouldn't believe possible, so traditional advertising methods won't do too well. A really great idea is to develop a coupon book of specials using a special offer from each vendor in your building. Have this delivered by third-class mail by one of the route-mailers in your area, or do it yourself.

Color-code the coupons by zip code to see where the majority of your business comes from, then concentrate on those areas the next time you do a mailing. Follow up with lots of the lowest-cost advertising you can find. Use neighborhood sections of newspapers to place discount entry coupons.

-- Why it works: Customers will shop in your mini-malls because of perceived bargains; and 50 percent off a $2 entry fee is an acceptable amount to pay for a visit. The atmosphere you want to provide should be a cut above the traditional flea market and below the discount house.

Tenants will rent spaces because of the immense traffic your advertising will draw and because a wide variety of customers from all areas will pass through at one time or another. Traditional downtown businesses will rent space to address new markets, get rid of overstock and develop new offerings.

Contact Paul Tulenko on his Web site, www.tulenko.com or by mail with a SASE to Paul Tulenko, 2320 La Vista Court NW, Albuquerque, NM 87120.