Picture a business district in your area with a lot of stores sitting empty. It shouldn’t be too hard to think of one: A 2014 study by the National Association of Counties (NACo) shows that six years after the official end of the Great Recession, most local economies still struggle to regain lost ground. Neighborhoods are recovering, but slowly, and that means a lot of Main Streets across America are dotted with empty storefronts.
Now imagine new businesses suddenly popping up, practically overnight, all along that street. Within the space of a few weeks, half a dozen new shops open, selling everything from used books to handmade jewelry. All of a sudden, the street is a vibrant, bustling business district once again.
This is more than just a crazy fantasy – it’s really happening in towns across America, from Oakland to Detroit. What makes it possible is a new type of business called pop-up stores: temporary businesses that set up shop in empty storefronts and other unused spaces. Some of these temporary stores end up turning into permanent ones, while others just stick around for a few months. But whether they’re budding businesses or just fly-by-night visitors, they can bring new life and energy to a neighborhood.
What Pop-Up Stores Do
A pop-up store can run for just a single day or up to six months. Because these stores are temporary, they don’t need all the trappings of a regular business, such as a lease, insurance, equipment, or even employees. They can set up shop with just two things: something to sell, and a place to sell it from.
Pop-up stores can sell just about anything, from clothing, to books, to homemade jams and jellies. Many of them feature handcrafted goods that the owners make themselves, such as jewelry, art, and accessories. Others offer seasonal items that are only in demand for a short time, such as Christmas ornaments or Halloween costumes.
Since renting a store is a big expense and often involves signing a long-term lease, most pop-up stores aren’t actual stores with buildings of their own. Instead, they set up shop anyplace that’s cheap, available, and accessible to the public.
A pop-up store can be any of the following:
- A collection of tables in a corner of a parking lot
- A stand at a farmers market
- A booth in a public park or town square
- A business on wheels, such as a food truck, that parks to sell its wares
- A craft sale or holiday bazaar in a local arts center
- A “store within a store,” in which an existing store rents or loans out part of its space to another business
- A full-scale shop that runs out of a vacant storefront, with the permission of the owner
- A short-term event run by a major retailer to attract new customers or create buzz for a new product line
Benefits of Pop-Up Stores
Pop-up stores offer many advantages, both for business owners and for the towns where they work. They can provide:
- Low-Risk Startups. One of the biggest barriers for new businesses is high startup costs. However, Storefront, a site that rents out space for short-term use, estimates that it’s possible to launch a pop-up store for about 20% of what it costs to start a permanent one. This gives entrepreneurs a change to try out their business idea and see if it’s viable without putting their life savings at risk. Online stores can use pop-up stores to get their feet wet in the offline world, and established businesses can use them to test out a new location.
- Tenants for Empty Spaces. An empty storefront doesn’t bring in any rent, which is bad news for building owners. However, they aren’t always willing to lower the rent just to fill the space, because they don’t want to be stuck in a long-term lease at a bargain-basement price. Renting the space out to a pop-up store gives them a chance to bring in some money in the short term without giving up the chance to book a higher-paying tenant later on.
- A Sense of Excitement. When a lot of stores sit empty for a long time, a neighborhood starts to take on a blighted look. By contrast, when new stores appear, disappear, and change from month to month, it makes the local business district feel fresh and energized. It becomes known as a place where there’s always something new going on. This vibrant feel draws visitors to the area, which is good for the established local businesses, as well as their pop-up neighbors.
- A Stronger Local Economy. Although most pop-up stores disappear after a few weeks or months, some go on to become permanent local businesses. More businesses, in turn, attract more customers, in a positive cycle that keeps the local economy strong. This is great news for everyone who lives in the area: Consumers have more places to shop, workers have more jobs available, property values increase, and the town becomes a greener, healthier, livelier place to live.
Supporting Pop-Up Stores
One way to support pop-up stores is simply to stop in and shop when you see one. However, this only helps if your town already has some pop-up stores in business. If it doesn’t, and you think it should, you can encourage them to form through a pop-up initiative. This is basically a local movement – supported by business owners, homeowners, local government, or all three – to promote pop-up retail in a given area.
Successful Pop-Up Initiatives
The Center for a New American Dream is a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote a more sustainable society, a mission that includes promoting local businesses. In its Guide to Going Local, it offers several examples of successful pop-up movements in the United States and Canada. Each one is in a different area and supports a different kind of pop-up business, but each one is working in its own way to use pop-ups to strengthen the community and the local economy.
- PopUpHood. In Oakland, California, a small-business incubator called PopUpHood works with local entrepreneurs, property owners, and the city government to bring new life to struggling neighborhoods. Local business owners with empty storefronts agree to make the space available to new stores, free of charge, for six months. After half a year of testing the waters, the pop-up store has the option of signing a long-term lease with the owner and becoming a permanent business. Successful businesses started through PopUpHood include a bike shop, a beauty salon, an avant-garde furniture store, and a coworking space.
- West Coast Mobile Retail Association (WCMRA). The WCMRA provides consulting services for people planning to start mobile retail businesses (stores that operate out of a truck). It offers free guides, paid webinars, and one-on-one consulting to teach people everything they need to know about starting and running a mobile retail business. The WCMRA started with just three members in Los Angeles and now supports businesses in Southern California, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Seattle. WCMRA members include clothing boutiques, a flower truck, a dry-goods store, and a gift shop called The Library Store on Wheels, which donates a portion of its sales to the Los Angeles Public Library.
- On the Spot Pop Ups. On the Spot Pop Ups is a nonprofit that organizes art shows and craft sales in Alberta, Canada. The organization also works with local businesses to make space available for artists and artisans to display their wares at low cost. Artisans can rent a table at one of their shows for as little as $10, or pay as much as $85 for a 40-square foot “premium space.” To date, On the Spot Pop Ups has hosted more than 50 shows in 10 different locations in Edmonton, featuring more than 400 individual artists and craftspeople. It’s now working to expand into Calgary.
- PopUp! Pittsburgh. PopUp! Pittsburgh focuses on one-day, low-cost events to bring new life to neighborhoods in decline. Rather than nurturing new businesses, its goal, as described on its website, is to “create magical moments that attract people’s attention” and “challenge the public to see the neighborhood in new ways.” Each year, it works with residents in a different neighborhood to develop and host an event. Past events have included community festivals, a public movie screening, a 5K run, a laser light show, and a mass renewal of wedding vows – all of which drew large crowds from inside and outside the neighborhood.
Hosting a Pop-Up Event
Creating a business to nurture pop-up stores, such as PopUpHood, is a major undertaking. However, planning a one-time pop-up event is a much more manageable project, and it can be the start of making pop-up stores part of your town’s business scene.
The Guide to Going Local offers advice on how to organize a pop-up event. Here’s a summary of the process:
- Find a Location. You can’t have a pop-up store without a place to put it. Look for empty or underused spaces in your town that could make good sites for pop-up stores: vacant buildings, oversized parking lots, or public spaces, such as parks. The ideal space should be big enough to accommodate several small pop-ups and also gets a lot of foot traffic.
- Seek Community Support. Look for sponsors to help you promote your pop-up event. These could include local businesses, homeowners, artists, community organizations, and your local government. Attend neighborhood meetings and other public forums to present your ideas and ask residents about what they would like to see in a pop-up event. The more you involve your neighbors in the planning, the more likely they are to support the pop-up when it takes place and help spread the word about it.
- Talk to Site Owners. No matter where you’re planning to hold your pop-up, you need the owner’s permission to use the site. If you’re looking at a vacant storefront, talk to the building owner. Some owners are willing to let a pop-up store use their space for a few weeks or months at a reduced rate (or even for free) rather than leave it sitting empty. If you’re using a public space, such as a park, check to see whether you need a permit.
- Invite Entrepreneurs. Next, talk to people in your town who would be interested in setting up pop-up stores. You can advertise in local newspapers, on community bulletin boards, and in online forums to find entrepreneurs who would like to run a pop-up shop for anywhere from a day to a few months. Try talking to groups of local artists and artisans as well. If your site is large enough, you can put several pop-up stores in the space – and if not, you can plan to rotate them in one after the other.
- Choose a Time. Once you know how many vendors you have and how long each one would like to run a pop-up store, you can figure out how long you need the space altogether and set start and end dates for your pop-up event. if you’re using a privately owned space, arrange short-term leases for the vendors that will occupy it. Talk to the landlord about giving businesses the option to sign a longer-term lease if their pop-up stores are successful.
- Promote the Event. Once you have your stores and a site to put them in, all you need is customers to visit them. Promote your event through as many channels as you can. Send a press release to the local paper, spread the word on social media, and hang posters and fliers in public places. Include information about the specific stores involved and what they sell, as well as the reasons for the project and the benefits you hope it can bring to the community. Use word of mouth, too – talk up the event with friends and neighbors, and encourage them to invite others.
As pop-up stores come and go along a street, they bring a feel of energy and change to the neighborhood. The fact that they’re only temporary adds to this sense of excitement, because people know they only have a few weeks or months to visit the new shop before it’s gone.
However, perhaps the biggest advantage of pop-up stores is their potential to grow into permanent local businesses. Towns with thriving local businesses enjoy stronger economies, closer-knit communities, and better health than barren suburbs where the nearest shopping district is a 20-minute drive away. So when you support pop-up stores, you’re not just sharing in the buzz – you’re also helping to make your town a better place to live.
Have you ever visited a pop-up store?