Unique Shipping Container Business Ideas in 2021

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These days, it’s hip to house a small business in a small place: a shipping container. Business owners are taking full advantage of the 320 square feet available and creating shipping container businesses. Low overheads, the economy of space, and the durability of shipping containers contribute to making them ideal places for the right endeavors. 

If you’ve ever thought about starting a business, but want an economical way of doing so, using a shipping container might just be what the doctor ordered. To help get the juices flowing, we’ve compiled a list of shipping container business ideas from around the world that we think are totally awesome!

15 Shipping Container Business Ideas You Can Start

What is “the right business”? There isn’t one answer, and in many ways, how a business owner utilizes a shipping container is limited only by their imagination. Since they stack in many configurations, shipping container businesses don’t have to be constrained by the 8’ x 40’ floor space of a single container (some of them are even 8’ x 20’). 

Maybe you’ve got a shipping container lying around, or perhaps you’re in search of a new business. Let’s take a look at some shipping container business opportunities. When it comes to how to start a shipping container business (or a whole shopping center), there aren’t many wrong answers – if you can imagine it, there’s probably a way to make it come to fruition. 

Pop-up Shop

Tiana Denine Harris owns digitalKENTE, a textile firm that makes its own clothing. Leaning into the yoga pants market, Harris’s business was part of a series of pop-up stores in Chicago housed in a shipping container shopping center. Businesses like digitalKENTE could rent space for pop-up stores for finite amounts of time, allowing for brand-building and some quick sales, which helped Harris and other business owners like her.

It isn’t easy to give a specific amount of revenue from a pop-up, as so many variables are at play. Start-up costs can be as little as $1,500 and as much as $100,000 or more, and labor and inventory costs will depend on what your pop-up is selling. 

But it’s a $10 billion industry these days, so that’s a lot of cheddar. Successful pop-ups range from restaurants to sneaker stores to art studios and just about anything else you can imagine.

Coffee Shop

mobile restaurant shipping containers
Source: Behance

Appropriately named, The Container is a coffee shop in Israel built into a 20-foot-long shipping container. Since many of us grab our coffee on the go, the tiny footprint of the store isn’t an issue in terms of seating. There’s ample counter space and a bar-like seating area for those customers who want to sit and sip.

With a cement-board floor and sheetrock on the walls (the walls that didn’t get replaced with windows for an airy, open look), The Container is a cozy place to get a cuppa. 

The modular nature of the shipping container means that the owners could move it just about anywhere, only needing access to electrical and water supplies.

Dog Grooming Service

While the architectural firm Deture Culsign built an enormous dog grooming service out of shipping containers, yours wouldn’t have to be that size. Economical use of space can easily accommodate a dog grooming business in one container, even a shorter 20-foot one. 

Probably not ideal for kennelling dogs, a shipping container can nevertheless be suitable for a small, pet-friendly business idea like this one.

Personal Training Service

converted shipping container gym
Source: BOLD

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, BOLD, a start-up in the fitness industry, came up with the idea of private gyms in shipping containers. Starting private or semi-private gyms in shipping containers has allowed BOLD to provide customers with high-end fitness equipment without the vast crowds often present in bigger gyms.

The first BOLD opened in Chicago on Fulton Street, and founder Jake Goldstein hopes to expand in the future. In 2016, it was estimated that successful gyms would make a little more than $60 per square foot annually. Not a huge amount for a small gym, but lower overhead costs certainly help. 

Yoga Studio

It’s hard to imagine a business idea more appropriate for a shipping container than a yoga studio. Yoga classes are usually small affairs, so the space in a shipping container seems like plenty of room for a teacher, a few mats, and some students all getting their Warrior II on. 

In Venice, Calif., Ilan Dei Venice is a collection of shipping container businesses, some of the pop-up variety, and one that houses a yoga studio with several daily classes. 

While it may seem odd to non-Californians, the idea behind the whole complex is to allow people to buy a piece of furniture, see some art, and do some yoga. You know, California stuff.

Event Space

converted shipping container
Source: Lime Media

Many companies rent out shipping containers expressly for events. Whether it’s a pop-up art gallery or a live music venue, shipping containers provide a temporary home for a fleeting affair.

Lime Media is one of those companies. If you’ve got a shindig that doesn’t call for a long-term lease of a building, the shipping container may be for you. Companies like Lime can help you choose the right size and even customize a box for your needs.

Like many aspects of shipping container business ideas, you are only hemmed in by the concepts you can imagine. 

Studio Space

A studio space is another excellent idea – no matter what type of studio space. There’s room to teach a pottery class (complete with the wheels and kiln needed), a painting class with its easels and models, even a music studio where students can take private lessons. 

All the instruments or supplies can be kept secure, and climate control is possible, too. A shipping container stands as an excellent idea for the smaller studios or single artists wanting to open a space.

Art Gallery

When designer Jill Fehrenbacher founded Inhabitat in 2005, she advocated for sustainability in design. That’s a big draw to shipping container businesses, so it’s no surprise that the firm has subsequently designed quite a few container spaces.

One is an art gallery in New York. Inhabitat used two 40-foot containers, joined them, and removed a few panels to let in natural light. The design is aesthetically pleasing and practical, allowing for workspaces on the first floor and the second  – while the staircase doubles as an art gallery.

Coming in under the artist’s $60,000 budget, the project is beautiful and provides a space for art creation and display.

Restaurant

restaurant

Muvbox in Montreal has two shipping container restaurantsIsland Lobster and Pizza Box. Both use one container to house their food and staff. Since there’s not much room for diners, they’ve added awnings to allow for some shelter in the event of less-than-ideal weather.

Retail

The Boxpark Shoreditch, in East London, is entirely made of shipping containers – a lot of them. There are more than 20 retail shops and several restaurants. The whole facility has a sleek and modern look to it due to the industrial nature of the containers themselves, and the relatively small size of the containers makes for efficiency in design and layout.

Hydroponics

Up in New York sits Stony Brook University, and they’ve got a Freight Farm up there. The idea is to use discarded shipping containers to give students the chance to grow crops year-round. The shipping container is perfect for such an operation because it can only hold so much, allowing you to pay close attention to all the plants. 

The shipping container model addresses several points: 

  • Students don’t have to wait out the winter before they can grow some things.
  • Since SBU is known for its environmental conscientiousness, this kind of reclamation project is no surprise.
  • The SBU Freight Farm supplies food to Campus Dining, providing fresh produce to college kids.
  • This kind of technology can translate to allowing for food cultivation in northern areas where the winters are brutal and often devoid of much light. 

Food Court

food court

Akash Engineering has built a food court from shipping containers that resides over in India. By stacking them and arranging them in a U-shape, Akash created a food court space with containers to house different restaurants and take-out places surrounding an open-air dining area. There is also rooftop dining available.

With outdoor seating available for customers of all the businesses there, each place can use its container space for restaurant operations without worrying about losing space to tables and booths.

The containers’ small footprint and relative portability make a food court a terrific fit for the shipping container model. It wouldn’t be simple to move locations, but it would be much easier than building a new facility.

Bike Shop

Electra Muzeon is a bike store in Moscow built from three shipping containers, which may lend credence to its potential claim to the title of “Best Laid-Out Bike Store Ever.” They joined two containers to make the showroom, and parts of the container walls have been replaced with glass to allow for catching the eyes of passers-by. 

Staircases separate a third container (allowing for inventory storage) to allow for access to the roof, where there’s seating (and presumably a sign that says, “Do not ride your bike off the roof”). You can buy or rent bikes at Electra Muzeon, and photographs reveal just how good an idea a bike shop in a shipping container can be.  

Workshop

A company in the UK called “Mr Box” manufactures workshops from shipping containers. These can be completely mobile – the company specifically mentions using them on shipping docks and moving them via crane onto and off ships. A shipping container workshop on a vessel? Come on! That’s gold.

Whether you use a company like Mr Box or kit out a shipping container yourself, think about the applications. If you run a business with a repair side to it, a shipping container workshop out back could be perfect. If you repair things, you can set your workshop in any number of places and have a secure place to work and store your tools when you close for the day. Repairers, rejoice. Here’s a practical, inexpensive way to have your own shop.

Office Space

Office Space

In the current global climate, the entire concept of office space is changing. Many businesses realized during a year-long-plus lockdown that perhaps office space in a skyscraper isn’t as cost-effective as they once thought. 

Since many workers are remote these days, businesses are now providing office space for workers to use just a few times a week, perhaps as needed.

Office space in a shipping container makes great sense in this case. If you have 12 workers who alternate days in an office space, you only need six workstations. If hot-bunking works for the navy, hot-desking seems like it wouldn’t be much of an inconvenience.

And since all an office needs these days is a workspace, power, Internet access, and a coffee machine, and all that can easily fit in a shipping container or two, it makes perfect sense. Businesses could even consider placing containers throughout their cities to allow office workers a shorter commute each time they leave their remote work behind for the day.

Hotel

In Round Top, Tex. stands a hotel made of shipping containers. No, it doesn’t have a lobby, and it doesn’t ask you to cram into a shipping container with strangers. At The Flophouze Shipping Container Hotel, each container is one hotel unit. From the back of each one, the layout includes a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, then living space. 

Windows punctuate each unit (and each unit is decorated differently, all with that Texas flavor that means the occasional cow skull here and there). The end of each unit boasts glass doors for a good view of the Texas sky. If it’s too bright for you, the shipping container’s outer door can be closed. 

Nine units comprise The Flophouze, and the place is an odd-but-cool mix of rustic and industrial. There are even hot tubs built out of small shipping containers. Like, I want to stay in this place tonight.

Bar

If you’re going to run a bar on the beach, coming up with a building is probably the hardest, budget-busting-est part of the whole deal. Enter the shipping container. Since a bar needs less space than a restaurant to prepare its menu, the actual bar can go on one end, and most of the rest of the area can be dedicated to customers sitting, standing, or even dancing (perhaps there’s not much room for flailing around wildly).

Alternately, start with a smaller container that serves only the bar itself, allowing customers to belly up, get their drinks, and head back out into the night, similar to the food truck model.

The shipping container’s look can easily lend itself to making a bar rather chic, combining economy with cool. EMS Shipping in Houston, Tex. posted this video showing how they took a shipping container from discarded to a functioning bar, and it’s pretty neat to watch, even though it is inexplicably accompanied by Christmas music.

Nail Salon

Most nail salons only need a small reception area, a place for the customer and manicurist to sit, a tub for foot-soaking, and a place to store products. Am I missing something? 

So the idea of renting a huge space for a nail salon can seem like overkill. An Australian company undertook a project called Beauty in a Box, in which it turned shipping containers into salons. These are perfect for smaller operations, even sole proprietor nail salons. If you’re looking for a shipping container business idea that draws repeat customers, this is the one.

Conclusion

The shipping container retail revolution is upon us. Shops, bars, restaurants, and whole shopping centers are being built out of these things. There are many companies out there selling and renting shipping containers. It’s a low-cost solution to your space concerns, it’s hip, and it’s conducive to smaller businesses. Find your best shipping container business idea and get going.

Ryan Stetson

Ryan Stetson

Currently own two 20' and 40' containers converted into an office/workshop. Having worked in the shipping industry for 6 years, my goal is to share my personal experiences as well as connect potential container buyers with suppliers around the US.

Ryan Stetson

Ryan Stetson

Currently own two 20' and 40' containers converted into an office/workshop. Having worked in the shipping industry for 6 years, my goal is to share my personal experiences as well as connect potential container buyers with suppliers around the US.

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