The pop up shop is rejuvenating the high street

We are in the midst of a retail revolution; brands are taking up temporary residence in abandoned shops, breathing new life back into the Great British high street

The pop up shop is rejuvenating the high street

The nation’s high street shops are dropping like flies. Thanks to the recession and a digital revolution, many of the UK’s busiest shopping districts are now ghost towns, with boarded up windows. Indeed, research by The Local Data Company found that high street shops are closing at a rate of 16 per day. But from the ashes of traditional retail, a new type of shopping experience has arisen – this era belongs to the pop-up.

Pop-ups can be a temporary shop, mobile stall or brand experience that sells products or services for a limited time period. Whilst the concept of pop-up is nothing new – for centuries retailers have set up stalls and travelled from town to town – pop-up retailers have proliferated up and down the UK in recent years to help revive dwindling high streets. Whilst they are temporary by nature, their presence is becoming permanent as a key driver of innovation in the retail sector. Their worth is not to be sniffed at: with a value of £2.1bn to the UK economy and a projected growth rate of 8.4% over the next year, pop-up retailing is redefining the marketplace. 

“Every year we see it become more mainstream – now you see mainstream brands using pop-ups as part of their strategy,” says Abigail Freeman, director of projects at We Are Pop Up, a platform to connect businesses and brands with short-term retail space. Pop-up retailing can be utilised by brands of all sizes; industry leaders including Nike and Google are incorporating pop-up stores into their marketing strategies to help launch new products. The format has many benefits for brands who want to test the market and their company or new product’s viability, and actively engage with their customers before committing to a long-term space. 

 “Pop-ups are brilliant if you are a start-up,” claims Elly Harrington, co-founder of Porridge Café in London. “You don’t need the amount of investment and risk involved in opening a permanent place. “It’s just a great way to try things out,” she adds. Harrington and her partner Nik Williamson, founder of The Bow Street Kitchen, launched London’s first porridge café after being offered a space there by We Are Pop Up. The duo are in good company in their neighbourhood: east London’s Shoreditch has been crowned the hub of trialling brands, home to diverse creatives and new innovative brands emerging both temporarily and permanently.  “It’s been amazing for networking, meeting people and getting your ideas out there. The locals have been really receptive to what we are doing and they’re quite intrigued,” reveals Harrington. Her café serves up more than just your average oats and milk, offering 25 different varieties, including both sweet and savoury porridge dishes, and it trials five new dishes per day. In case reading this has left you with a craving for its oaty wares, we’re sad to say Porridge Café has already packed up its cereal boxes and left. Harrington and Williamson chose to pop up for just one month during March. However, there is some good news for Londoners: “We’ve got a few offers sat on the table at the moment, off the back of being here and people seeing us in the press. We’re just weighing up the best place to pop up next,” reveals Williamson. He remains tight-lipped about the prospective location but felt that the success of their time in Shoreditch will lead to them testing other locations.  Popping up offers companies the chance to trial locations for the right retail presence for their brand. 

Pop-up retailing holds many benefits for brand testing but the nature of retailing hasn’t quite caught up to the needs of this industry to support start-ups. Harrington admits that renting a coffee machine was the pair’s biggest challenge. “It’s quite unusual to have a coffee machine for a month and it’s not something that’s really done in the industry.” Thankfully, Harrington, who is from the Lake District, knew a great coffee producer there who managed to pull some strings. “I think they were quite keen to get into east London – they lent me the machine and the beans as well,” she says. 

Roger Wade, the brains behind Boxpark, a pop-up shopping mall made of shipping containers in Shoreditch, is leading a petition along with 600 people to call on the government to help small independent retailers starting up, by giving small businesses rates relief in their first three months. As former independent company owner himself, Wade understands the needs of brands starting up and through Boxpark he offers a one-week free pop-up for small companies as well as a free launch event, 52 weeks a year. 

Wade is a firm believer in building a good customer experience with a brand; he believes that retail is shifting back to its founding principles of having positive engagements with customers. “We’ve got to make sure whatever we do has a customer experience and it has to be special. And that experience in pop-ups means limited edition products for a limited amount of time and makes the customer feel like they have a special experience,” Wade states. “I don’t see pop-up as a phenomenon, I think it’s here to stay. It’s not just a fad.”

“The word ‘pop-up’ has taught us that the future of retail is going to be about creating these special experiences. I think first and foremost, retailing is entertainment and people love going to shops. Shops have got a very bright future,” Wade predicts. 

Wade has just announced that he will be building another Boxpark mall in Croydon, the largest borough in London. It will have the same retail space, but double the space for events. “We have been really influenced by Covent Garden: we’ve looked at the old ways of retailing. We’ve got to first and foremost create entertainment,” says Wade. “Entertain that customer, make sure they want to come to wherever we build and if they shop that’s great but first and foremost we must deliver entertainment, and the rest will happen organically.”

Even e-tailers who’ve built entire businesses around the online experience are going back to their roots. “Online-only businesses who are coming offline are a big segment for us. Pop-up is brilliant for them; they can come offline and get more brand awareness with a physical presence,” says Freeman. “Some brands like to educate their customers in a way that they can’t do online.” 

We Are Pop Up has launched Shop Share for the smaller businesses that want to break into retail but can’t necessarily meet the rates of individual leases. “It’s a brilliant way to collaborate with brands in a new way that wasn’t possible before,” says Freeman. “We are very excited to see the new technology coming through to make the O2O [online-to-offline] experience for vendors much more seamless and easy to do.”  

Convergence of online and offline channels is all part of creating a more positive customer experience; it is what is now expected of retailers. “It’s not a question of online or in store; the future is both worlds. It’s amalgamating those worlds and creating a seamless customer experience that works,” says Wade.

You can now analyse behaviours in a store in the same way that you use Google analytics: facial-recognition footfall trackers can now analyse customer shopping behaviours across online and offline channels. “It’s very exciting that technology is getting more and more accessible to small and early stage brands,” Freeman notes. 

Jade Saunders
Jade Saunders

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