A hot new shop just opened down the street. But you better get there fast, because next week it will be gone: it's a pop-up.
Unlike the standard mainstay of traditional retail - reliability - part of the pop-up's allure is transience, which translates to an air of exclusivity. Yet while the trendier side of pop-ups may be more recent, temporary or seasonal shops have been around for a long time. Ever noticed the costume store that appears in your neighborhood when the calendar flips to October? Speaking of calendars, how about the calendar store that shows up at the mall each year?
Big box behemoth Target has created more than 20 pop-up stores since 2002, including a one-day boutique in Toronto last February to create buzz ahead of its massive Canadian rollout. Even businesses that don't normally have storefronts are giving it a try. Massive online auction site eBay launched a storefront in Toronto last November, just in time to drive Christmas traffic to their website.
But before you worry that it's yet another cool, indie idea that's been swallowed up by corporations and large chains, there's still plenty of room for the little guy to pop up and make an impact.
Build a Business at Warp Speed
In October 2011, Matt Basile was one of those guys. He had a food concept he called Fidel Gastro, but no money. With next to no resources, he had to be strategic. He also wasn't above a little risk-taking. Operating without a license and lasting just two hours, Fidel Gastro's Pop-up Sandwich Revolucion was truly guerrilla. After selling out of sandwiches on the corner of Queen and Bathurst, he popped up at festivals and events around Toronto.
"It was a way to test my capabilities, the brand, the product, the marketplace and the appetite for it," says Matt.
The appetite for his Sloppy Jose turned out to be voracious. Less than a year later, Matt's pop-ups morphed into a food truck, which inspired a reality TV show. "Rebel Without A Kitchen"currently airs on the Travel + Escape channel. However, just months after the show's debut, its title is no longer accurate. In April, Matt opened a restaurant, Lisa Marie — just down the street from his first pop-up location. His new kitchen is also headquarters for food truck prep.
Matt says the rapid-fire evolution of his culinary empire could be due to his experimental entry into the marketplace. "I got a crash course not just in food, but as a business owner. You're going to make mistakes, you're going to learn from them, then you're never going to repeat them — because now you're in charge of your own finances. You're telling yourself that you're going to sell a thousand sandwiches, or I'm not going to f***ing eat this week. Unless it's the sandwiches."
Break Creative Boundaries
Others view pop-ups as purely promotional events. In Vancouver, Robin Kort creates memorable experiences in secret locations, complete with actors, costumes and sets, all centred on food. The dining experiences last only a few days, never to be repeated, and exist expressly to promote Swallow Tail, her food tour and event company.
"It's how I started building my mailing list, essentially," says Robin, who relishes the artistic challenge of her theatrical happenings. "It's not a big money-making venture. It's more of a marketing venture."
The members-only underground supper club might not make a profit, but the promotional benefits are priceless. One culinary extravaganza, "Down the Rabbit Hole," was featured on the Food Network. Robin's cult following, numbering more than 3000 people, translates into a finely tuned email list of potential customers for Swallow Tail.
Rules and Regulations
"It's a hard economy right now, but all these innovative ideas are awesome," says Robin. "I hope that different cities around the world support them, instead of trying to quash them with regulation. It's so intimidating to go through the business licenses, et cetera, it can zap the creativity right out of you."
That said, if you see the perfect space for your retail pop-up, don't sign the lease before you have your business license locked down. Every city in Canada has its own variations, but in Calgary it can take anywhere from 1 to 4 weeks to get approval. City officials also recommend doing your research first. For example, if the space has already been used for a retail venture, chances are the land is zoned for that type of use. But if you plan to open a temporary restaurant, the change of use may not be approved. You also will need to meet various health and safety regulations, as well as gaming and liquor requirements if needed.
Officials warn prospective pop-up entrepreneurs not to chance it without the license, even if you only plan to be open a few days or weeks. Most urban centres have inspectors keeping an eye out for illegitimate businesses — with a healthy reporting system from the public.
Have You Missed the Trend?
Signs of pop-ups becoming mainstream are already visible. The retail phenomenon has a Wikipedia page. Pop-Up Business For Dummies has been on store shelves for several months. And some urban centres, like the City of Calgary, even have space on their websites devoted to permit application requirements for pop-ups.
"It's a trendy little word now," says Matt. "As far as their function, I think there will always be a need for it. Will they always be as marketable as they are right now? Hard to say. It's not a knock on the pop-up. It's just how trends work. They're not always here forever."
But some trends do become permanent. With adaptation and creative evolution, pop-ups could eventually be considered just another of the many choices for business ventures. In the meantime, the pop-up continues to be a quick and inexpensive way for entrepreneurs to test and market their endeavours.
Photo Credit (for shot of Matt Basile): Kyla Zanardi