With stores no bigger than a bathroom, you would think mall kiosk owners had it pretty good: low rent, lots of foot traffic and a nimble business plan.
That small kiosk can cost more in rent than most Orange County retail stores.
And that heavy foot traffic often means more theft, plus no way to conveniently go to the restroom without further jeopardizing your inventory.
The nimble business plan? Some kiosks, like those at Disneyland, have a two- to three-year waiting list.
"It's hard," said Emre Yigit from Costa Mesa, who sells pillows that look like emojis from a kiosk called Emojizz in the Shops at Mission Viejo.
He's been selling the bright yellow pillows with business partner Korp Onur of Newport Beach. Previously, Yigit had a kiosk at Disneyland.
The partners are two months into a three-month lease, at which time they will reevaluate their business.
But right now they are livid at the Port of Los Angeles because of delays in approving the arrival of cargo from China. There has been a 7% increase in container traffic compared with last year, according to the port.
"We have more than 20,000 pillows waiting since December 10," Yigit said. "Just waiting. After Christmas, we don't know what happens."
Onur said port authorities told him certain ships had to get searched.
"They're pillows for Christmas," Onur said." They're not drugs. Anyone can see that."
In the meantime, the two have had to contend with seasonal spikes in rent. Kiosk rents at most Orange County malls typically are $3,000 to $4,000 a month, but since it's Christmas, they have gone up to $9,000.
That's a lot of $18 pillows.
Yigit said he's confident that the business partners will cover their costs because the items are popular. But long term, he knows that the traditional retail business is tough.
"There are no new ideas in retail," he said. "Business is really bad. It's the same thing."
He then rattled off typical, tired products, including cellphone cases and cheap jewelry.
Other kiosk owners agreed that the business model can be challenging.
Spirit Qin started out in a kiosk but now owns a stand-alone T-shirt store called Personalitees in Laguna Beach. Qin owned a kiosk at Irvine Spectrum for 10 years, working long hours at the outdoor mall, trying to build up his business.
"It's called 'specialty leasing,'" Qin said, smiling.
Qin paid significantly more in rent than he does currently at his Coast Highway location, just south of downtown Laguna. During busy seasons at the kiosk, he had to hire temporary workers.
"At Christmas, I had four people working for me, but I didn't make much," he said, citing the employee costs, unpredictable weather and high rent.
"Christmas is double (in rent)," he said. "Right now all the malls are good, but wait until January."
Qin said the leases at Irvine Spectrum were usually six months or a year.
"After a year, the mall will increase your rent," Qin said. "They want turnaround."
He noted the misconceptions about kiosks.
"You think the prices would be lower but they're not," he said.
On the plus side, owners have more flexibility to negotiate with customers, so Qin recommends that people try to haggle.
Most kiosk owners don't last long. They want to get in, make a profit and get out. Plus, Qin said, it's not a glamorous job.
"They have a pretty rough life if you think about it," he said. "The mall is strict about opening and closing on time. If you're by yourself, you can't take a break. You put up a sign and hope that somebody doesn't steal anything."
Back at the Mission Viejo mall, Yigit is ringing up a young teenage girl who wants a pillow. Yigit says it will be $18.
The girl reaches into her wallet and comes up short, proposing $15. Yigit grudgingly agrees but not before teasing her about the possibility of him going broke and not being able to afford his rent.
She counts out several dollar bills and then hesitates. She looks up at Yigit with a sad, concerned look and says, "$13?"
Yigit rolls his eyes. "OK, fine, $13. But don't tell anybody."
The girl walks away smiling, just as another customer asks about the price of the pillows.
"For you we have a special, two for $30," Yigit says. "It's Christmas."