Claudine Gumbel

Founder, Caravan
www.shopcaravan.com

Who needs to cruise the mall, when your favorite boutique can come cruising to you?

That’s the concept behind Caravan, a Winnebago decked out like a chic store and outfitted with stylish, indie-designer clothes, accessories and gift items.

Claudine Gumbel and her husband, Brian, came up with the idea and co-founded Caravan about one year ago in New York City. Ever since, Caravan has been showing up at the doorsteps of serious shoppers and getting considerable mileage with the media.

It’s no wonder. Gumbel knows about generating buzz… she’s also the co-founder of Think PR, a firm with about $2,000,000 in annual revenue focused on the beauty and fashion industries.

Something Unique In Store

“I always wanted to open a store, but knew I didn’t want to do a basic store. If I was going to do something, I was going to do something where I could use my PR background to gain publicity and hopefully drive sales.

“One day over drinks, my husband and I were talking about how we’re addicted to this service called FreshDirect, a grocer that comes to your door… you order online and they deliver. We thought it was so convenient, we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you could do something similar to that, but with clothes?'”

Dressing Well on Wheels

“We had to do a lot of research on how to do it. We came up with the idea of a Winnebago and had it totally refurbished. It has a dressing room, counter with cash register, a sitting area. It has taken on a life of its own. We have met probably 15,000 people who have come into the Caravan over the last year.”

Serious Shoppers and Browsers Welcome

“Most people book appointments – shopcaravan.com has all our info. We feel things out to see if someone is just looking to check us out, or if they’re a serious shopper. We don’t charge for appointments, but we hope they’ll make a purchase. On Saturdays and Sundays in the meatpacking district, a trendy neighborhood in New York, we have public nights. So if someone doesn’t sound too serious about shopping, we usually encourage them to come during public nights.”

Caravan Expands Into 2,000-Square-Foot Store

“(The RV) is comfortable. You can fit about 8-12 people, but we didn’t have a place to store all the boxes that were kind of piling up at our PR company. So we decided to open a store. It winds up that I found this place that’s around the corner from my office that used to be a restaurant. The owner was sick of restaurants. He said, ‘If you turn this into a retail space, I’ll give you a significant discount.’ So I have a 2,000-square-foot store now at 2 Great Jones Street.

“We worked with 2modern.com, a Web site that has contemporary home furnishings. They came in and decorated the whole space. It doesn’t look like the typical store. It looks like a party space. We’ve only been open about a month now and we’ve great parties… Carmen Electra was here, the cast of Grey’s Anatomy.”

Designers on Board

“We have about 60 different designers – every day we add one or two. Heatherette is a big thing for us. We have a line called Catch a Fire by Bob Marley’s daughter. You can’t find it many places and it has really cute things. Genetic Denim does well in the mobile unit.

“We have novelty pieces in the mobile unit – things you don’t have to think too much about. They’re impulse-buys, well-made clothes. In the store, we carry a lot of designers that are hard-to-find… items where you might have to ask someone, ‘How do you wear this?’ or ‘How does this get styled?’ The average sale in the store is about $400, in the mobile unit it’s $100 or $150.”

Compassion is Always in Fashion

“Two things that are really cool and that we do phenomenally well with are items that give back to good causes. We carry Wildlife Works (www.wildlifeworks.com) and they sell T-shirts and novelty blouses made in Kenya by women who wouldn’t necessarily have jobs unless their eco-factory was there providing jobs.

“We also have tank tops by Keep a Child Alive (www.keepachildalive.com). For every shirt we sell, the money goes back to the cause (children and families in need of AIDS medicines). It costs about $400 to keep one child alive for a year. So far we have been able to go through two lots of shirts (at $400 per lot).

Funding and the Future

“(Caravan) has been privately funded. My husband (an account manager with Cisco Systems) and I put a lot of money into it – a good portion of our savings has been put into starting it. People say it usually takes about two to three years to see a profit. We would have done wonderfully if we had just started the mobile unit, but the store… there are so many costs involved with that. You take a couple of steps forward, a couple of steps back.

“We’re looking for an investor and have been talking to a lot of private equity companies and angels to make sure that when we do bring on an investor, it’s the right fit. We’re talking about growing things to the next level, and in order to do that we’ve probably got to bring on some type of partnership and then we’ll get our nest egg back, too.”

Carvan’s Next Stop – a Town Near You?

“L.A. would be next (for Caravan). We’re looking at doing Austin, Texas, and probably Miami. Definitely Japan and Dublin and Paris. By the end of the year we’ll have one (more mobile unit with a store attached to it) and maybe two more set up.”

Greatest Challenge

“Right now I have a good team, but it’s gone through some transitions. You think you have a good person and then they get lazy. The hardest thing is finding good people. Sometimes I feel like a broken record. I have asked people, ‘Please let me know what you have done all day – write me up a simple e-mail at the end of the day.’ Sometimes they leave without doing that. You can”t control what other people are going to do.”

PR Advice for You: Talk and Tantalize

“The biggest thing is picking up the phone, having a really good story and just telling your story. A lot of (entrepreneur’s) ultimate mistake is putting all these fancy materials together and then blasting them out to people, sending them out, hoping that someone reads them. Editors are totally inundated all day long. If you want to be inThe New York Times, you need to read The New York Times, know who’s writing those sections (where you want to see coverage) and understand what they’ve been writing about. Pitch them. Make it short, make it sweet and follow up with a package.

“You have to do something that’s really out of the box to get attention. With the mobile unit, we were on every major TV network. Diane Sawyer was here… Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Tyra Banks. People were covering it and they didn’t care that other people
were covering it, which I found amazing. My clients asked, ‘Why did you get all that press and how can you get that kind of press for me?’ (The mobile unit) got press because it was something no one had ever seen before.”

How to Be Smart about Couture and Culture

“I skim a lot… I read everything from Newsweek to The Wall Street Journal to The New York Times to Vogue and Lucky and Daily Candy. US Weekly is great. So is People magazine. I go out a lot. You have to go out a lot. I think going out is important – interacting with people and seeing things from different points of view. Seeing films is always important. I think travel is super important. Lastly I think it’s important is to be part of the MySpace generation. And I learn a lot from customers by watching what they’re wearing and responding t