May 24 Thru 27th
9am to 9pm at Cats and Dogs Coffee

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What is a Pop-Up Store?

(Photo by Rosipaw)

Pop-up retail projects emerged as a trend in the USA around 2003-2004, and have gained steam since then.

The idea, at its most basic, is that commerce occurs, at a temporary (but fixed) location, for a temporary amount of time (a day, a week, a month).

Civilization has had temporary stores since ancient times, in the form of bazaars, markets, and other short term events. It is how we have done business for a long, long time. In fact, the word retail, to mean "sale in small quantities", and referring to permanently housed specialty stores, was first recorded in 1433, only a few centuries ago.

Markets and market days (specific days of the week that a market was open for business) were a key way by which goods could be traded. For most of history, goods for sale were perishable and produced by hand. Market days allowed farmers and craftspeople for a large area to produce goods during most of the week, and then sell them at a central location on a single day.

The rise of the retail model (that is, stores that sold specific kinds of goods, and were open the whole week) only emerged when human settlement allowed for a large enough demand to meet that kind of supply. Fundamentally, one only sees speciality shops in places of great human density: cities.

A pop-up store maintains the characteristic of being inherently specialized. Many of them only represent a single brand, such as the Comme des Garcons: Black store in New York City, which only markets a particular lower-cost line of Comme des Garcons clothing.

Where pop-ups differ from specialty stores is in their temporary nature. Because they are only around for a month or less, they tend to have low overhead as compared to a long term store. The space might be rent-free, the staff may volunteer, and because they are a new and novel thing, and a limited, exclusive event, the amount of attention and activity they attract is usually vastly higher than a long-term retail counterpart.

Pop-up stores have taken off since 2008, when the recession set in. Many building owners, neighborhood groups, and cities (Pittsburgh included) see them as a way to fill, in the very short term, vacant spaces that other businesses have abandoned (due to collapse or downsizing). They are a way to keep a business district well-trafficked despite a lack of permanent tenants. As such, many of them pay no-or-low rent during their time in the space.

This was the case with Fleeting Pages, which set up in an abandoned Borders soon after that chain collapsed. Once Fleeting Pages ended, the space was vacant for many long months before a permanent tenant was found.

The City of Pittsburgh recently launched Project Pop Up, a project which matches artists, non-profits, and retailers with vacant storefronts downtown, and allow them to "activate" those spaces for a limited time.

The pop-up concept seems to have legs, and more and more traditional businesses and building-owners are learning to embrace the temporary use of vacant space for interesting projects. Jodi Morrision, organizer of Fleeting Pages, noted to me a few days ago that "unlike when I started organizing Fleeting Pages, there are actually insurance options for pop-up businesses now!"

(Photo by MorBCN)
But what about Clowder & Pack? Is it just another pop-up?


Clowder & Pack differs from the "usual" model in that it will be a store-within-a-store. Cats and Dogs Coffee already has a back room, used currently as a reservable meeting space and an extra, slightly quieter seating area. The space Clowder & Pack will be activating is already being used - just not as a non-profit-benefiting bookstore!

This set-up is a win-win-win situation. Cats and Dogs has provided the use of the space free of charge, and adjusted the schedule of reserved meetings to accomodate Clowder & Pack. This brings overhead costs for the project down to nearly zero, which means that all of the proceeds go directly to Assemble and local authors. Cats and Dogs will see more traffic day-of, and, because it is an awesome place even when there is not a bookstore in it, it will see a long-term increase in traffic too.

I can imagine a few ways that this idea could take off, but the most direct notion is that such a store-within-a-store setup might be a great way for small entrepreneurial businesses to take off, or fail fast. Low overhead and immediate feedback is a great way to test the waters of a market.

Another way that Clowder & Pack differs from "traditional" pop-up retail is that we are, in essence, a fundraiser and festival too. The mission is to raise funds for Assemble, get notoriety and sales for local authors, and boost the general esteem of Cats and Dogs, while having a good time and making great new connections.

I look forward to this grand experiment, and I'll see you all in less than a month!

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