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Retail Apocalypse, Tech Giants And Mini Department Stores Change The Face Of Pop-Up Retail

“Every time someone mentions the retail apocalypse, it’s great for our business.”

Storefront head of U.K. business development Charlie Farr is musing on a transformational year for pop-up retail.

The pop-up retail platform estimates more than 10,000 pop-up stores have been launched in the U.K. in 2018. Driving that is the wider climate of store closures afflicting retail, and a growing acceptance of the pop-up concept from landlords.

Facebook's pop-up store on Carnaby Street

As well as the number, the nature of pop-up stores is changing. In the U.K. and indeed globally it is not just fashion anymore. Tech giants like Google and Facebook are using pop-ups to speak to customers face to face. Wellness and fitness concepts are expanding, as is the food sector. And “concept stores” — stores which curate products from multiple brands, like mini department stores, are a growing part of the scene. 

“Brands don’t want to take long leases, they want flexibility, especially if they are smaller brands looking at taking a first store or trying a new area, and want to do that without spending a huge amount on capital expenditure,” Farr said, explaining the appeal to retailers.

The big change this year, he said, has been the attitude of landlords.

“In London we’re now working with all of the big institutional landlords,” he said. “They are sitting there with properties empty for a whole year and are realising that they need to do something about it, and are coming round to our way of thinking, which is that short term is the new long term. You need to be able to lease a unit 10 or 20 times in a year rather than sitting there and waiting to lease it to one person for five years.”

The company’s volume of bookings in London increased by 200% in 2018 compared to 2017, and it had similar growth in cities like New York and Paris, Farr said. It has 15,000 spaces listed on its platform worldwide.

Part of that expansion is coming from tech companies utilising the format to reach customers in person. In September Facebook opened a pop-up store on Carnaby Street in a unit taken through Storefront, where users could drop in and ask questions about the use of their data, in the wake of the bad publicity the company has received over the past 18 months. It has done the same thing in Paris, Hong Kong and Amsterdam.

In a more traditional retail sense, Google took over a unit on Regent Street for a month to push its new smartphone. Called the Curiosity Rooms, it has hosted talks, workshops and events as well as showcasing phones. Amazon earlier this year launched a fashion pop-up on Baker Street.

Rana's pop-up Italian grocery store on Marylebone High Street

Another new trend is the rise of pop-up concept stores, such as Blake LDN in Mayfair. The store’s curator works with Storefront to allow a regularly changing roster of brands to take very small amounts of space for periods as short as a day, further reducing the cost and increasing the “try before you buy” element for brands. Brands can rent space in concept stores for as little as £20 a day, Farr said. 

Wellness and fitness concepts are on the rise, often utilising underused space above retail units as well as the units themselves. Exercise bike brand Peloton used pop-up stores to launch in the U.K.

And food remains a big part of the pop-up scene. Not just restaurants, but also retailers with a big focus on experience, like Italian food company La Famiglia Rana, which opened an Italian grocer complete with cookery classes on Marylebone High Street.

Farr highlights the company as an example of pop-up retail working perfectly — the company is now opening a permanent store.

What is the future of pop-ups? For Farr it is a word that is ubiquitous in all sectors of property: community.

“Having local businesses on the high street creates an amazing experience and people love it,” he said. “The platform allows for small, local retailers to take space for a short period at a low cost, and we are looking at ways of helping people to utilise their local contacts to grow this sense of community.” 

With the retail apocalypse unlikely to recede any time soon, and innovative new brands still wanting to reach customers face to face rather than simply online, the sector seems set for growth again next year.