The logic of the pop up is a curious one. On the one hand, they can be seen to pump lungfuls of air into a dying high street. On the other, they’re only ever destined to be transitory – occupying ghost boxes for a month or so, to fade away again, leaving no trace that they were ever there at all.
With Christmas on the way, Harvey Nichols has, once again, launched its food store pop up. A good thing? Certainly, if you want to buy Peruvian tonic, or single cask malt whisky. But what if you’re a trader – Delifonseca, say – which commits to offering the city a year-round retail offer, only to see a national chain hunker down for the easy months, scoop up our Christmas cash, and flit away before we’ve taken down the tinsel. Is that fair?
For retail entrepreneurs or wannabes, pop-ups can offer a toe in the water. A chance to test out before committing to a long lease, whilst helping to fill empty retail space. But do many of these pop-ups remain stay-ups? Or do they speak more to our increasingly ephemeral desires – our throwaway relationship with ‘stuff’, and our unwillingness to commit to long term relationships with restaurants, stores or bars? Constantly in thrall to the shiny and the new? No-one seems to know – trying to find figures for permanent pop-ups is as difficult as trying to buy over-priced Piccalilli in Liverpool outside of the festive season.
“Clearly I think pop-ups are a good idea,” says made-here’s retail mogul, Kate Stewart.
“made-here is the pop-up that stayed up after all, and we ran a pop-up festival last Christmas to help others to try retail too.” Pop-ups, Kate believes, are a response to a problem that runs deeper than a vacant shopfront.
“Retail landlords still haven’t grasped the responsibility that they have for the future of the high street – they should perhaps consider that their role could be more than just rent collector.”
Kate suggest landlords and retailers should try to forge partnerships, to encourage diversity and support for start ups: to see the pop-up as the start of a longer-term relationship, rather than retail ships that pass in the night.
“The days of upwards only rent reviews should be firmly in the past in some locations. The Council has a role here too – many other local authorities have recognised what commentators have been pointing out for a long time – that retail business rates are out of step with current property values and are a massive part of the disincentive for new high street businesses,” she says.
Kate’s colourful Met Quarter store, made-here, features the best of made-in-Liverpool designs – but, more than that, it’s a call to arms: lobbying the city over the potential that the localism agenda gives for the council to support start-ups and social businesses through intelligent use of discretionary rate relief.
“We’ve seen examples in other towns and cities where this works,” she says. “It frustrates me that public sector strategies that could regenerate pockets of our high street are written and then not backed up by the planning process – Richmond Street is a prime example of this at the moment,” she says, pointing to the council’s apparent SIF u-turn on making this street a vibrant independent thoroughfare.
Initiatives such as the (Mary Portas-approved) Pop-Up Britain match start-ups with empty shops. Emma Jones, co-founder of the campaign, says “Our vision was that it would become a cheap and easy way for local businesses to get access to their own high street. Our tenants have had a great opportunity to meet new customers and get valuable feedback about their business and products that they wouldn’t otherwise have had.
“And while they’ve been carrying on their daily work, they’ve been able to make sales that have more than covered their outlay for the two weeks they are here.”
Meanwhile, apps such as www.wearepopup.com promise to match businesses with short-term commercial space for retail, art, design, dining, community and specialty projects.
This Christmas, Liverpool’s Revolver Retail will open its first container market, on Williamson Square. The latest fleeting retail must-have features shipping containers, temporarily tarted up to house boutiques, cafes and gift stores.
“The strategy with temporary structures is to fire up the pop up culture in Liverpool,” Revolver’s Matt Bell tells SevenStreets.
“We want to use these structures to get people trading at events, and seasonal peaks where there’s notthe all year round demand. We also want to see businesses trying out other areas of the city and hopefully opening up second locations as a result. Projects such as the our Urban Winter Village allows them to test the market, without the long term commitment.”
But SevenStreets notices, on Revolver’s online portfolio, a retail unit recently vacated by a friend of ours trying to get a foothold in the city. Her arts organisation landlord had increased her rent, forcing her out. Now the shop’s touted as the latest city ‘pop-up’. Where, we wonder, is the logic in this? Surely working towards longer-term relationships beats a Christmas-only boutique, no matter how on trend it is? What if, as happens on other cities, the council was to step in, buy buildings in high-rent districts, and offer start-ups leases at an affordable prices? In France a similar law allows independent commerce, and the jobs it provides, to flourish.
“It’s not our place to comment on landlord’s rent levels but the majority of landlords are very supportive in the city,” Matt says. “Business rates are an issue as we all know, rates on Bold Street are higher than units of the same size in Westfield London for example which sees 40m visitors a year but their rates were set in 2011 hence the need for a sooner revaluation. The other issue is that the stepping stone stores before people are ready to trade in the Bluecoat, for example, are not available, and the city really needs to create these.”
Yet, with pop-ups now so hot – attracting the likes of Nike, Puma, Audi, Chanel, Mont Blanc – some retail analysts predict that, before long, they too will be priced out of the reach of independent start ups, in favour of the cash-and-grab seasonal offerings, such as Harvey Nichols’ food pop-up.
“Longer term our vision is to take larger vacant spaces and reconfigure them as department stores with accessible spaces for all kinds of retailers,” Matt says. “We plan to link these with creative, training organisations, business support networks, makers, colleges, universities and get everyone working together to create Liverpool’s own unique department store, food hall and independent offer.”
It’s a nice idea. Matt talks of a Bold Street/Tarleton Street bazaar of accessibly priced units under the one roof. Something similar was mooted for the Scandinavian Hotel, before Geraud objected, and the idea fell by the wayside, only for the hotel to become student flats.
Perhaps the future of retail belongs not to the static chain store. With 1 in 6 stores lying empty, perhaps we will not see their neon fascias lit again in our lifetime. Perhaps, instead, we’ll get accustomed to the temporary sign and the sandwich board.
Perhaps the future of retail is more fluid: a caravan of itinerant traders and try-me concept stores: “Many major cities in Britain, Western Europe, and the US are seeing a decline in large-scale static shops,” says Emma Jones. “We expect the term ‘pop-up’ to fall out of fashion as the movement becomes ubiquitous.”
“This is exciting for landlords, retailers, and individuals with available space. Today, they have a marketplace that literally did not exist six months ago. And soon, they won’t remember a time without it.”
More information: www.startacus.net, www.revolverretail.com, www.made-here.co.uk
Urban Winter Village
From November 25