“Pop-Ups”: You’ve seen them, those retail businesses that appear suddenly, operate for a day or two—sometimes for weeks—and then disappear. They’re literally “popping up” across the country on Main Streets, in malls, even in vacant lots.
Pop-up shops are often created by first-time entrepreneurs—bakers, specialty food purveyors, jewelers, ceramicists, and other artisans selling handmade wares. Artists and performers open pop-up art galleries and theaters. Chefs create pop-up restaurants with tasting menus. Online retailers often test future store locations with temporary pop-up shops before committing to brick-and-mortar businesses. And pop-ups are serving as marketing “outposts” for national and international companies from Apple to the Girl Scouts.
While pop-ups are temporary by definition, they can have longer-term impacts on communities. In the wake of the recent economic downturn, pop-ups have proven to be a tool in the work of downtown revitalization. Take for example Operation Storefront, a program launched by the Downtown Partnership in Baltimore, Maryland, to revitalize some underutilized properties in the downtown area. Operation Storefront matched new retailers with landlords who owned vacant storefronts, and provided matching grants of up to $10,000 to the retailers to help them launch their new locations. In 2011, the program kicked off by providing space for more than a dozen ventures, including furniture makers, a Brazilian capoeira studio, and a theater program for kids. According to Mike Evitts of the Downtown Partnership, the success of the program was dependent in part on public-private partnerships; one of the most valuable was working with Baltimore’s city planning office to change zoning to allow for more retail. Property owners saw the benefits of these changes, which helped increase foot traffic to the buildings, encouraged a greater mix of uses, and made the buildings more recession-proof. “The more energy you have at street level, the more investment you’ll have in the area,” says Evitts.
Baltimore’s Operation Storefront program provided retailers with short-term leases of several months; the incubation period afforded several businesses the opportunity to grow and then sign long-term leases. Maggie Villegas says that her theater organization, EMP Collective, “wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Operation Storefront.” The program allowed her organization to transform from a loosely established theater group that performed one or two productions a year into a not-for-profit organization that produces dozens of events per year and operates a rotating gallery and exhibition space. Their productions attracted up to 200 people a night, bringing new life to an area of the city that was usually empty. EMP Collective ultimately signed a long-term lease with their landlord, and today they are helping to attract more arts organizations to the area.
Other cities such as South Bend, Indiana, are transforming their downtowns by using seasonal pop-up programs like the Holiday Pop-Up Shop program to fill empty storefronts. The not-for-profit group Downtown Sound Bend (DTSB) developed the program in 2010 in response to the negative impact the recession had on the city’s downtown. The pop-ups piggybacked off the momentum of several annual events that traditionally brought people downtown, including a tree-lighting ceremony and a Santa’s House. In its first year, DTSB matched four retailers with spaces; two of the storefronts were in city-owned buildings, a model that encouraged private landlords to take a risk and join the program. Participating retailers agreed to be open for certain hours; to hold several special events that are open to public, such as art exhibitions or concerts; to have an online presence; and to design a window display that was captivating both during the day and at night.
DTSB’s Tamara Nicholl-Smith credits the success of the program, in part, to the South Bend media. “They played a big role in the success we experienced in our very first year, generating buzz…through television, radio, and newspaper stories.” Like Baltimore, some of the pop-up retailers eventually signed long-term leases, and today there are five new businesses in the downtown thanks to the Holiday Pop-Up Shop program, including a toy store, local artisanal shop, and theater company.
Pop-up programs can serve as effective small business incubators, as they minimize start-up risk and investment, create opportunities for face-to-face encounters with potential customers, and provide informal and inexpensive test marketing of goods, services, pricing, and customer traffic.