With a deficit of long-term city-centre leases, a need to reconnect with customers and an imperative to spotlight underserved communities, pop-up retail has found new relevance this year.

From outcast to opportunity

As a retail format, the pop-up has felt ubiquitous over the last decade. Think back, however, and you’ll realize that there were areas where the concept was widely shunned, namely in some of the world’s most feted luxury shopping streets. As long bastions of tradition rather than experimentation, the pop-up’s ‘move fast and break things’ ethos didn’t quite meet the code. But with commercial real estate vacancies mounting and retail facing its latest existential crisis, landlords are having to rethink that. On New York’s Madison Avenue, where vacancy rates now sit at 19%, the Madison Avenue Business Improvement District has created a new template that will streamline the process for arranging short-term license agreements.

It hopes that making a standardized, and thus more efficient and cost-effective, agreement document will tempt reticent property owners into filling unused shopfronts with temporary tenants rather than holding out for more substantial leases. It’s a similar situation in Milan’s Golden Triangle, where local analysts believe 2020 could prove to be a useful impetus to revitalize the retail mix in an area that has had little scope for surprise. ‘A possible opportunity will be the opening of pop-up stores for one or two years in luxury areas,’ Issei Komi, founder and chief executive officer of real estate consulting firm Italia Fudosan Real Estate, told Women’s Wear Daily. 'Currently it’s really hard to find this type of location, but, due to the current situation, some landlords might consider this option.’ We already covered how other slow-moving typologies such as airports are looking to pop-ups to revitalize their tenant mix.

Suburban Surge

One of the main strategic benefits of the pop-up has been its ability to test not only new concepts, but new markets. That’s been particularly important this year as significant portions of many brands’s customer bases relocate to ex-urban enclaves. It’s something we wrote about a few months ago, when a number of Manhattan’s core fashion retailers realized that they were going to have to pack up and move to Rhode Island if they were going to make anything of the summer season. Jimmy Choo was even driving directly to client’s summer houses to offer the ultimate private concierge service. That outward migration shows no sign of slowing as we head into winter.

For Boyds, Philadelphia’s iconic luxury-focused department store, 2020 will be the first year in over 80 that they have a presence in the city’s suburbs. The brand conducted surveys during the pandemic that showed its customer base wanted to shop smaller and more local (something common across territories). As a result they’ve temporarily taken over an ex-Urban Outfitters in an outdoor mall in Ardmore, something that will act as a dry-run for a potential permanent second location. Speaking to the Philadelphia Business Journal, owner Kent Gushner outlined that the pop-up is a necessary step to follow customers who had already started moving out of the city centre to start families, something he’s seen turbo-charged by the pandemic. Some people think we’re crazy but I’d rather try and fail than not try at all,’ says Gushner.

Giving values visibility

The pandemic wasn’t the only paradigm-shifting event to impact retail this year. The growth of the Black Lives Matter movement has shone a spotlight on the manifold difficulties faced by BIPOC business owners. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that Black-owned businesses (BoBs) in the US have suffered disproportionally during the pandemic, estimating that 41% shut down between February and April. In response brands such as Target, Google and Sephora have taken steps to help consumer better identify BoBs both on and offline. Pop-ups can play a vital role here too, particularly as part of quick-response strategies aimed at creating greater visibility for underserved communities. Minnesota’s Mall of America (one of the biggest in the world) has transformed a 5,000-square-foot unit into 17 temporary stores that have been given to local business owners, with preference given to women and people of colour. Called Community Commons, each tenant gets their space for free at least six months. Creative agency Knock Inc. worked pro-bono on the concept and positioning, as well as aiding some of the businesses with the design of merchandising and messaging.

‘There is a physical connection with business owners that you don't get unless it's in this market concept, where you are actually talking to the makers or the person who is buying the product,’ Reginaldo Reyes, Knock Inc’s vice president of brand experience and environmental design, told the Star Tribune. Last month, London’s Carnaby Street saw the arrival of the 21 Youth Street concept, a series of pop-ups designed to highlight the work of BoBs across the creative arts. Featuring the work of 50 business across fashion, art and photography, the site will also host signings, exhibitions and talks on subjects such as mental health and identity. ‘What young Black creatives and businesses need is space and access,’ Kojo Marfo, founder of My Runway Group, the team behind the initiative, told Harper’s Bazaar. ‘We are happy #BlackInCarnaby gives visibility to young black owned businesses and also connects them to new audiences.'

Hero image: A 2019 Louis Vuitton menswear pop-up in New York City, imagined by Virgil Abloh. Courtesy of Louis Vuitton/Brad Dickson