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Dreams incubate in shopping mall carts

Scattered among the malls packed with holiday shoppers are kiosks filled with sunglasses, purses, jewelry and more exotic products. Low start-up costs have made kiosks a popular venture for immigrants with entrepreneurial dreams.
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Ertac Gungor stood near his kiosk in Tysons Corner Center, watching as a woman wearing a maroon headscarf thumbed through the pillowcases, copper earrings and scarves that fill his kiosk. "Everything I sell is from Turkey," he said.

Gungor came to Fairfax from Turkey's south coast four years ago after visiting the Washington region on a vacation. During that trip, he noticed the ethnic diversity of the mall kiosk vendors and their wares but did not spot anyone from Turkey.

"I am thinking, 'I am opening here, too,' because Turkish handicrafts are rich," Gungor said in halting English.

Scattered among the malls packed with holiday shoppers are kiosks filled with sunglasses, purses, jewelry and more exotic products. New carts have recently appeared, selling ornaments, candy and other seasonal items. Owners of these small businesses hope to lure some of the shoppers rushing to buy gifts at retail mainstays such as Gap, Ann Taylor and Bloomingdale's. And as Gungor noted, many of these kiosks are owned by immigrants.

In Tysons Corner Center, about half the 40 kiosk owners are from other countries, according to mall management. Immigrants also operate numerous kiosks and carts at the Mall at Prince George's in Hyattsville, Westfield Shoppingtown Montgomery and other regional shopping centers.

An inexpensive start-up
Nationally, about 25 percent of the more than 50,000 carts and kiosks in shopping malls are owned or operated by recent immigrants, according to figures compiled by Patricia Norins, a kiosk consultant and publisher of the trade magazine Specialty Retail Report.

Immigrants began opening mall kiosks in large numbers in the early 1990s, Norins said. At that time, Indian, Chinese and other South Asian and East Asian immigrants were the largest groups. In recent years, the number of immigrant kiosk owners from the Middle East has grown, she said.

In many shopping centers, small retailers can open a kiosk for as little as $5,000, which generally covers the price of renting the cart and purchasing the merchandise, according to kiosk owners and Kathy Hannon, senior property manager for Macerich Co., which runs Tysons Corner Center. To open a kiosk, an entrepreneur must present mall managers with a proposal outlining what they will sell and why it will work in the mall's marketplace. Hannon said immigrants can often import unusual goods inexpensively from their home countries.

Once a proposal has been approved, most shopping centers require a security deposit and the first month's rent for the cart. Kiosk operators often can commit to rent the cart for as little as three months. Norins said profits earned from kiosks vary greatly. Most kiosk owners sell products for about $20 and mark up items at least three times wholesale price, she said. Kiosk owners interviewed declined to describe their markups, but African immigrant Atchossa Tchama said he comfortably replaced the $40,000 income he earned working for the federal government within his first year of owning the kiosk and has since surpassed that.

Because of the relatively low start-up costs, mall kiosks "act as an incubation program," Norrins said. "It is harder for immigrants to get into a [permanent] store," Hannon said. At Tysons, an entrepreneur would pay $50,000 a year to rent a kiosk and $150,000 for a small store, according to Hannon.

Gungor, 43, eventually hopes to open a store, but for now he spends 12 hours six days a week at his cart, named Eastern Market. His wife, a journalist, continues to live in Turkey, where Gungor used to own a small coastal hotel and a construction company. He said he was able to get an investment visa because of his plans to start a business here.

Before leaving Turkey, he made connections with artisans in Istanbul, who now ship him handicrafts to sell. Last year, he also began acting as a wholesaler for Turkish manufacturers and artisans. He sells ceramic plates, carpets, pillowcases and other Turkish products to about two dozen small boutique owners. With the wholesale operation and kiosks, his monthly sales total about $17,000, Gungor said.

Gungor said he moved here because of a fascination with American culture. "I like the U.S. because everybody smiles," Gungor said. "I come here and everybody say: 'Good morning. Good morning.' "

'Never be afraid'

Milagros Ford owns two kiosks downstairs from Gungor. She said she grew up in a squatters town in the Philippines and became obsessed with fashion as a teen. She won some beauty pageants and then, 11 years ago, at age 19, moved to Fairfax to marry an American pen pal.

After working at some teen clothing and accessory retail shops, Ford started a seasonal sunglasses cart called Cool Eyes three years ago. It required a $15,000 investment. To select the shades, Ford pored over fashion magazines and picked out styles favored by Hollywood stars. The business quickly became profitable.

A year later, she opened a second kiosk, called Trendy. She sells earrings made in China and shipped from a warehouse in New York, along with shell jewelry sent by her siblings, whom she has helped support. It has taken longer to make money selling jewelry, Ford said.

When teenage girls stop by looking for the perfect earrings to accompany their homecoming dresses, Ford does her best to charm them. She quickly pulls out InStyle magazine and points out that celebs such as LeAnn Rimes and Amy Yasbeck are wearing big earrings with long strapless dresses. And she says things such as, "Girlfriend, that looks good on you."

If business is slow, she tries to keep herself inspired. "It's tough being in retail," she said, still smiling. Then she pulled a slip of paper out of a glass jar of motivational sayings that she reads each day. "Never be afraid to make mistakes," the paper read.

"I'm not going to be standing here looking pretty at a kiosk for the rest of my life," Ford said. She said she hopes to move to a permanent store one day.

Adapting to the market

Tchama, 28, also has expansion plans. He left his father's chicken farm in Togo to study computer networking at Virginia Tech in 1999. After completing his degree, he worked as an information technology contractor for a federal agency for a few years but grew bored. So, more than two years ago, Tchama entered the kiosk business with a stand in the Mall at Prince George's and a second one the next year at Westfield Shoppingtown Wheaton.

"I can clearly see my future in this," he said while sitting at his stand and threading several necklaces with red, black and green beads. "I put my energy and talent in this. It is my own thing."

He entered the business when he met a Kenyan woman who was returning to Africa and looking to sell her African art and jewelry kiosk. Tchama quit his job and bought the kiosk and a storehouse of merchandise for $20,000. In six months, he broke even on the investment.

He traveled to Togo, Ghana and Mali, where he met artisans and arranged regular shipments of merchandise. The wooden masks, soapstone sculptures, silver jewelry and leather bags from Africa sold well. But he noticed that many of the customers in the malls were Central American immigrants.

So he has started carrying Central American items, such as dog tags with the Salvadoran flag. And he is planning a trip to Mexico to find authentic Latin American crafts to sell. Meanwhile, Tchama is investing in a computerized system of cash registers that will allow him to hire more employees and expand into other malls.

"I wanted to just study and go back home, but I ended up liking it, and I decided to exploit the opportunities here," Tchama said.

'So much confidence'

Gaurav Ohri, 27, and his family have done what Gungor, Ford and Tchama dream about. At one point, they had up to four kiosks as well as six stores, though none of the stores was permanent.

When Ohri was 12, his parents, Lalit and Surinder, moved their family to the United States from India so that their children could attend better schools. When they first arrived, Gaurav Ohri would spend weekends helping his father sell inexpensive wallets and other accessories from India at a flea-market table at Capitol Hill's Eastern Market.

Soon his parents opened a permanent kiosk selling Indian goods in the Old Post Office Pavilion in the District. The business, named Sonya Leather after one of Ohri's sisters, grew steadily. They opened a second location in Ballston Common Mall in Arlington in 1990. Then others in Montgomery Mall and Landover Mall in 1995. They expanded the Old Post Office Pavilion kiosk to a general store.

Ohri studied management information systems at George Mason University, and when he graduated, he took over the daily operations of his parents' enterprise. He opened a kiosk in Tysons Corner Center. Then, in an effort to expand beyond Indian items, he bought $300 worth of women's handbags in New York's wholesale district. They sold within days.

Soon all of the carts had more handbags than Indian wallets. The company was renamed S&S Handbags. The family opened a cart in Pentagon City Mall. The company now imports little from India.

Ohri, who has rimless glasses and close-cut hair, traveled to China and negotiated direct shipments of handbags, about $300,000 worth every few months. The family has a 6,000-square-foot office in Lorton with a warehouse distribution center.

S&S Handbags has also begun opening temporary stores in malls, including Tysons Corner Center and St. Charles Town Center in Waldorf. The firm negotiates short-term leases for vacant retail spaces and puts up "FINAL, CLOSE OUT SALE" signs.

"That gave us the confidence that we can pay [mall store] rent and employee salary and still make money," Ohri said. "We only have two carts left, and now we are ready to make the next step. We have so much confidence now that next year we aren't doing any more carts."