Pop-up era: How temporary stores are changing retail in the Bay Area

By Annie Sciacca
East Bay Times

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Temporary pop-up stores are big business this year for small entrepreneurs and even some giant retailers.

East Bay Times

With the holiday season in full swing, pop-up shops seem to be everywhere.

Once primarily a tool for small businesses and entrepreneurs to introduce their products to a market, test out business concepts and make use of empty or underused real estate, these temporary stores are now used even by big retailers like Amazon in an effort to turn retail into an event.

Still, the concept remains an important tool for makers and small businesses to get a toehold in the Bay Area amid the high costs of doing business, and the holiday shopping season is a prime time for them to open.

That’s the case for Sara Weymouth, who recently opened her new gift store, Lemon, in the form of a temporary pop-up in Danville.

“I think it’s a little bit of testing the market and testing out the shop as a whole,” Weymouth said of her decision to open a pop-up instead of aiming for a more permanent lease.

The pop-up for Lemon, which sells a variety of handmade goods, including baby items, home decor, holiday decorations and toddler furniture, will be open a total of 45 days. While Weymouth said she considered signing a more permanent lease, the temporary pop-up concept appealed to her as a way to test out the new business during the busy shopping season.

Makers and small business owners in the Bay Area have increasingly turned to pop-ups in recent years as a way to gain a physical presence in a market where real estate and other costs of business are high.

San Jose Made, a local organization with a goal of growing the community and visibility of makers, craftspeople and artisan businesses, often organizes events and coordinates pop-ups for its members. It has been working with the Westfield Valley Fair mall for several years in hosting pop-up shops for local makers.

The small businesses get access to space inside the mall, where they can set up shop for weeks at a time and gain exposure in the high-volume shopping center.

Many small businesses that employ the pop-up concept go on to sign longer leases in retail spaces, said Kevin Biggers, director of strategy for San Jose Made, while others use pop-ups continuously to maintain a physical presence without the high overhead.

Tam Tran, owner of the accessories shop Classic Loot, did a series of pop-ups in storefronts as well as through a mobile retail truck before opening the current store in San Jose’s Japantown neighborhood, where the business has a three-year lease.

“Just finding a location in San Jose that was affordable with a decent amount of foot traffic was very difficult,” Tran said.
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“I think going the pop-up route was a definite advantage, especially when you want to open a brick-and-mortar (shop). You get to see if the demographic in that area will work for you, and if it doesn’t work out, you can pack it up.”

It’s a decades-old concept, but pop-ups made a big entrance into the Bay Area in Oakland in late 2011, after artist and Oakland resident Sarah Filley, aware of a high vacancy rate among storefronts in parts of downtown Oakland, worked with the city and a landlord to put artists and makers into six vacant storefronts in old Oakland for a program she called Popuphood.

Putting pop-up businesses in the long-empty storefronts was an incentive for the city and landlords to utilize the spaces and a chance for artists and small business owners to show off their products. And it came as the First Fridays event — a monthly art walk and community event in Oakland — was drawing thousands of people to the city.

“If we could connect the arts event happening back into storefronts and market old Oakland as a place to shop more than one night a month, we could build in some financial sustainability into our community,” Filley said.

Filley has expanded Popuphood out of Oakland and into places like Berkeley, Hayward and Los Angeles.

In Berkeley, maker and artist Chase Clark worked with Popuphood to open a pop-up on Addison Street, at the base of a residential building built by AvalonBay Communities, Inc., for her fabric and yarn shop, The Black Squirrel.

Clark saw it as a way to test out her business and the location after looking at a slew of expensive leases in Oakland and downtown Berkeley.

“I didn’t know this neighborhood,” Clark said. But after a few months, she knew it was the right spot for her and eventually signed a five-year lease in the space, where her business is growing.

Small businesses aren’t the only ones going the pop-up route. Amazon has opened Amazon Pop-Up stores in shopping centers and inside Whole Foods stores, although its “pop-up” locations do not appear to have any expiration date. Google, too, has opened pop-up stores to show off its gadgets. Apparel retailer The Cashmere Sale has opened weeks-long pop-up shops in Danville, Burlingame and Marin County.

And the concept has become popular enough that there are companies dedicated to helping retailers launch pop-ups. One of those, PopUp Republic, describes itself as a service provider for the “$50 billion dollar pop-up industry.”
“Pop-ups have this ability to generate this type of immediacy and urgency,” Biggers, of San Jose Made, said. “It creates this cluster of both conversation and community.”

Perhaps because of pop-ups’ ephemeral nature, people view them as an experience — something to attend with friends and share on social media, for example, Biggers said. Indeed, a search on Facebook and Instagram yields thousands of posts about pop-up shops from businesses and their followers. Weymouth, of Lemon, said many people come into her store who have found her shop on social media.

And as the retail industry continues to change, with retailers across the country closing shops and scrambling to figure out the best way to attract shoppers, pop-ups could play a key part in their strategy. According to a holiday retail survey from real estate firm CBRE, landlords are increasingly open to short-term leases, both as a way to utilize space left empty by closures or as a way to offer something “new and different.”

The attention around pop-up events, Biggers said, “creates a large sense of everyone talking about this.”

“You don’t necessarily see that with brick-and-mortar, unless it’s a wide clearance sale,” he said. “That’s why you see big companies investing in it — it’s a new way we’re approaching retail.”

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