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Last Updated: Monday, 3 September 2007, 07:19 GMT 08:19 UK
Hitting the road with food in tow
An ice cream van struggles to entice customers during a rain storm at Royal Ascot
Mobile retailers are always at the mercy of the weather

In the latest in a series of articles on current shopping issues, BBC News business reporter Gavin Stamp looks at mobile retailers and their summer blues.

It is not unusual to hear shop owners complaining about the weather, and sometimes the climate can seem like a easy excuse for their own shortcomings.

But when it comes to mobile retailers, whose customers' battles against the elements this summer have been particularly acute, it is hard not to have some sympathy.

"Too wet and the crowds don't turn out, too hot and people don't want to carry food around," says Jane Taylor, co-founder of the Yorkshire Dales Cheese Company, who has been exhibiting her products at more than 25 country shows and food festivals this summer.

One of the wettest summers in recent history has taken its toll on many retailers. But for those without High Street stores to fall back on, it has been a special headache.

"Cancellations have been a big problem this year - particularly for traders who had invested in large amounts of stock," Ms Taylor adds.

"In addition, refunds for stand costs paid in advance have not always been forthcoming."

Location, location, location

"Trailer retailers" are now spoilt for choice about where to sell their wares, with thousands of festivals and sporting events across the UK offering an ideal showcase for them.

But when the conditions turn ugly, as they did at Royal Ascot, Wimbledon and Glastonbury, firms can be forgiven for hoping the muddy ground will open and swallow them up.

"For the first three days of a show you are trying to cover your costs," says Robin West, co-owner of the Traditional Pasty and Pie Company.

"When you get to the last day, you go into profit mode. There are times when you won't manage it. It is as simple as that."

We make sure we are not just selling something but serving the customer with something they will enjoy. A good caterer will make something with love
Robin West, Traditional Pasty & Pie Company

Mr West can be found selling his freshly-made Cornish pasties and organic coffee at high-profile events in the sporting and business calendar including Cowes week, the Farnborough Air Show, the Grand National and Glorious Goodwood.

This may sound like a great way of touring the country and soaking up the atmosphere of a English summer but, in reality, it is extremely tough and commercially risky work.

Racecourses charge retailers a flat fee of between 1,000 and 2,000 for a small pitch during a prestigious meeting while some music festivals ask five times that amount.

Things can quickly unravel - as happened one day at this year's Glorious Goodwood race meeting, when Mr West made a loss on the day's trade.

"If you are in the wrong position on a racecourse, you can haemorrhage money," he says, echoing the old mantra that location is everything.

Health and safety

While some retailers make handsome money out of sporting events and festivals, the odds seem increasingly stacked against many businesses.

Before rent payments are due, there are travel and accommodation costs to pay - and these quickly add up.

The cost of energy, vital to a business like Traditional Pasty & Pie which uses air conditioning to make its puff pastry, has soared in recent years.

"Gas and electricity costs have gone through the roof," says Mr West. "It is a necessary evil that we are dealing with all the time."

A Traditional Pasty & Pie stall at Goodwood racecourse
Being in the right location is of paramount importance to all firms

Most punitive, however, is the cost of complying with stringent healthy and safety regulations - which must be met every time a retailer sets up shop somewhere.

Retailers like Mr West are well-used to dealing with council officers, gas safety inspectors and other officials, and he says there is an "understandable" pre-occupation with upholding standards and doing everything possible to prevent the risk of food poisoning.

At the same time, he is frustrated about the escalating cost of red tape.

He believes this plays into the hands of firms not concerned with offering value for money: those he says are happy to charge more than 5 for a plain hamburger in a cheap bun.

"We are not after the 'one-hit wonder' but after continuity," he says, insisting that meeting customers' rising culinary expectations is essential to building brand loyalty.

"But the list of expenditure on infrastructure and having to conform with rules and regulations for food and hygiene and safety just goes on."

Private route

One way of reducing red tape and keeping costs down is to focus on private customers: the route taken by Morfudd Richards with her mobile ice cream service Lolas On Ice.

A former top London chef, she sold her restaurant in 2005 and is now making deluxe, organic ice creams for weddings, private parties and business functions.

"People want me to be outside the church or as a substitute for desert," she says, adding that she has been "incredibly lucky" with the weather this summer.

Although the business has its limitations - she will not take her van on trips of more than 40 miles outside London - she believes she has found a niche in the market, and one not requiring her to work an 80-hour week and manage 20 staff.

"If I was really business-minded, I could probably franchise it," she says of the concept.

"I think there is a lot of potential in setting up a business based on having your own van, making ice-creams and taking them to parties."

Don't mention the shop

Mobile retailing may once have been cheaper than running a shop, but times have changed.

Robin West believes the costs are pretty much the same these days, and this explains the increasingly high turnover of operators at festivals and sporting events.

David Jason as Granville and Ronnie Barker as Arkwright deal with an awkward customer in sitcom Open All Hours
There are some advantages in not having to mind the shop every day

"If you look at eBay, you see a lot of mobile trailers for sale," he says.

"Many people come into the industry, flash through and get out. They get into trouble and start trying to sell their stock cheaply."

The nation's motorways and B-roads may not be paved with gold for most mobile retailers.

But they are doing a job they enjoy and getting satisfaction from keeping customers happy.

"We make sure we are not just selling something but serving the customer with something they will enjoy," Mr West concludes.

"A good caterer will make something with love."


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