February 26, 2010

Kiosk sales: Be funny, fast, surprising

BETH QUIMBY

— By

click image to enlarge

Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Uri Ustaev works at the Premier Dead Sea kiosk in the Maine Mall Tuesday, December 8, 2009.

Jack Milton

click image to enlarge

Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: John Fortin works at the Infrared Heat Source kiosk in the Maine Mall Tuesday, December 8, 2009, where he sells quartz infrared heaters.

Jack Milton

Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — As the crowds built up at the Maine Mall on Tuesday, Uri Ustaev worked hard to persuade shoppers to stop.

Anyone who was willing to make eye contact got a big smile from Ustaev and an instant offer of a free demonstration of Premiere Dead Sea skin and nail products. If the shopper gave the go-ahead, Ustaev immediately jumped into his sales pitch.

''You have to be fast, interesting and funny. You have to surprise them,'' said Ustaev, who in 15 seconds transformed an ordinary fingernail into a glossy enamel-hard surface.

Ustaev, a 23-year-old Israeli from Tel Aviv, is spending his fifth holiday season in an American shopping mall. He is part of an international assortment of vendors who hawk wares from the dozens of carts and kiosks that operate for two months in Maine's biggest enclosed mall.

This year's vendors include Ecuadorans selling brightly knit woolens, Egyptians peddling electronic smoking devices, and Chinese pushing hair extensions. There's also a good share of Mainers, shilling everything from infrared space heaters to homegrown comedians.

Mixed in with the retailers is the entertainment: the Euro Bungee jumping concession, the 10-minute masseurs and the $1-a-try massage chairs. This year, the mall's space for carts and kiosks is sold out.

''What we do is try to create something different that adds to the variety,'' said Craig Gorris, the mall's general manager.

Israelis are a growing presence at the Maine Mall and malls around the country, where they are known for their hard-sell techniques. This year, eight of the roughly 30 seasonal carts at the mall are operated by Israelis. Nationwide, they have become the major operators of mall carts, according to industry watchers.

They are all after a portion of the roughly $12 billion in sales made from kiosks and carts each year. Patricia Norins, who publishes the Specialty Retail Report in Hanover, Mass., said that even in the recession, the industry is thriving.

Estimating the number of cart and kiosk operators is difficult, she said, because the industry is constantly shifting with the season. The carts and kiosks are ubiquitous at the 1,800 enclosed malls in the United States. They are also popping up in airports and at tourist attractions.

''We have a readership of 25,000 cart and kiosk retailers,'' Norins said of her publication.

She said carts and kiosks tend to be operated by independent owners, the vast majority of whom own five locations or fewer. The industry is growing in part because laid-off workers tend to start up their own businesses, and kiosks and carts present a relatively inexpensive way to enter the retail sector.

''You can start with an investment for under $10,000, often on a credit card,'' she said.

Norins said the key to success is finding a product that makes a good profit margin, such as sunglasses. ''People often lose them, and they are a fashion statement,'' she said.

Kiosk workers put in long hours, but the payoff can be big at this time of year.

Ustaev is managing the sales staff for six of the Israeli-owned carts at the Maine Mall. They generally work two to a cart, putting in 12-hour days, seven days a week.

Ustaev said he has figured out that if he can persuade just two customers an hour to sample his wares, he is doing well. But he said snagging two customers an hour isn't that easy in Maine, where shoppers seem less interested in product demos than they are in Arizona, Massachusetts and other places he has worked.

On a good day, he can sell as much as $900 worth of products. He is paid on commission, with $100 taken out of his weekly check to cover the rent for an apartment in South Portland that he shares with some of his co-workers.

He said that for the 10-week season, the average take-home pay is $5,000 to $6,000. Ustaev said he is using his earnings to pay for a graduate degree in chemistry.

Kiosk and cart owners must follow rules at the mall. The management approves all of their wares. Handmade signs and loud music are banned. There is a strict dress code, and all sales clerks must stand within arm's reach of their carts or kiosks.

While the Israelis are known for their assertive techniques, other operators say they prefer a more laid-back approach.

''My philosophy is, you treat them like your neighbors because they very well may be your neighbors,'' said Cindy Hunt of Gorham, who is spending her 18th holiday season at the mall, this year selling scarves.

Mike Brown, manger of the year-round T Mobile Customer Wireless kiosk, said this time of year is tough on his business.

Describing his style as somewhere between assertive and passive, Brown said that by the time shoppers make it through the line of carts and kiosks that lead up to his, they are weary of sales pitches.

''They say, 'I don't want to talk,''' he said.

But Brown said everyone working at the kiosks and carts is in it together, and the workers get along and look out for each other. Ustaev and his friends were invited to a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by the operator of a sunglasses kiosk.

At the Premier Dead Sea cart, Ustaev's Israeli colleague, a statuesque blonde, was on a sales streak, busily buffing the nails and working lotion onto the hands of a laughing and grinning Vaughn Clark of Portland.

Clark said the products will be a big hit with some of the women on his gift list.

''And the sales pitch was dead on,'' he said.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

bquimby@pressherald.com

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