Belfast Telegraph

Why we're all popping down to pop-up shops

More and more pop up shops appearing around Belfast, like Justin Lowry's 4G gadget shop
More and more pop up shops appearing around Belfast, like Justin Lowry's 4G gadget shop

By Heather McGarrigle

With the winds of recession howling through the high street causing some big-name casualties, could salvation actually lie with the big hit of the last year - temporary retail spaces

If 2011 was the year of the pop-up shop in Northern Ireland, 2012 could be the year of the pop-up high street.

The past 12 months have seen the retail sector in sharp decline, with big names and small independents alike going to the wall at an alarming rate.

To open a pop-up shop, a business negotiates a short term lease, or licence, with the property owner and sets up shop for a period of time which can be anything between a few days to several months.

Short term retailing is nothing new.

For years, Northern Ireland's shopping centres and high streets have played host to temporary traders, usually selling Halloween or Christmas-related goods from a shop unit for a few weeks before vanishing again.

Artists and craftspeople in Northern Ireland have also used pop up galleries and shops over the past few years as a cost-effective way to exhibit and sell.

However, last year saw an explosion in the number of businesses of all types trying out this business model.

Throughout the year, fashion boutiques, galleries, furniture shops and even restaurants popped up and popped off again.

Social media platforms - in particular, Twitter - boosted the all-important 'word of mouth' these ventures rely on.

Interesting concepts, coupled with the 'catch it while you can' factor proved an irresistible draw - a much-needed unique selling point at a time when inflation and reduced real incomes are forcing everyone to be choosy when it comes to spending.

One of the most talked-about ventures has been Home, an innovative collaboration between chef Ben Haller and furniture upcycling collective ReFound, run by Jill O'Neill.

These two very different businesses came together in previously vacant premises on Belfast's Callendar Street.

The 50-seater restaurant is furnished with customised tables, chairs and accessories from Jill's artists, with all items available for customers to buy.

Having run several pop-up shops to bring ReFound products to market, Jill believes the concept has an important role to play in resuscitating the retail industry and rejuvenating town centres.

"The pop-up concept works for any business sector and in this economic climate, everyone has to diversify and be innovative," she said. "Some people remain reticent about the whole idea, but more and more are coming to me to ask how to do it."

Jill is now preparing to work in collaboration with Justin Lowry, who has begun a new venture to help Northern Ireland entrepreneurs to 'pop up'.

Justin has worked in a number of retail roles throughout his career and grew up in the industry, as his family owned the LeisureWorld stores.

He has opened what he describes as "Northern Ireland's first turn-key pop up module".

Justin will provide a fitted-out unit for rent with amenities such as cash registers, counters, display stands, stereos and even a security tag system provided.

The aim is to remove as many obstacles as possible for the seller - including the need to make insurance arrangements and overhead costs.

He used the unit himself to open a month-long gadget shop and Jill is to bring ReFound to the unit in March. In the meantime a 4G clearance sale and Valentine's shop will make appearances.

Mr Lowry said: "The pop-up may be the future of the high street, at least in the near future. They are the biggest retail growth area in most city centres."

Ms O'Neill is hoping to create a pop-up service under the ReFound brand to assist businesses wishing to explore temporary ventures.

Retail analyst Donald McFetridge said there was a danger the shops could be seen as 'fly by night' but believes they should be welcomed.

He said: "A high street or shopping centre with empty units sends out the wrong signals to shoppers and, no doubt, landlords are delighted to be able to pick up the extra revenue which pop-up shops provide, even if only for a short period of time.

"However, it is important to point out that pop-ups by their very nature are here today and gone tomorrow which can result in cognitive dissonance for consumers who resent the fact that one minute they're here, the next they're gone."

The issue of consumer rights regarding returns and faulty goods has also been raised.

However, Northern Ireland Trading Standards said there was currently "no evidence of major detriment through 'pop up shops'" and that "consumers have the same rights whether they buy from a pop up shop or any other type".

Commercial property agents are unwilling to elaborate on how short-term licence prices compare to a standard long-term shop lease.

They are believed generally to be cheaper, but rates can vary wildly from landlord to landlord.

Justin Lowry said: "Some will just ask for enough to cover their rates, while other will insist on a pro-rata arrangement."

Anne-Marie Lonergan, director at Savills property consultancy in Belfast said flexibility was the key advantage to commercial landlords and tenants but that there were drawbacks.

She said: "Unlike a long-term lease where an income stream is guaranteed, pop-up shops do not give the certainty required in these challenging times. Another point to note, particularly in shopping centres is that, pop-up shops can cause friction with other long-term retailers.

"We expect to see this trend continuing after the recession but to a lesser degree. As consumer confidence grows and the retail economy picks up again, there will not be the same volume of vacant units available that we are seeing in out of town locations and city centres at present."

A selection of Northern Ireland's 2011 pop ups

Refound - Jill O'Neill's upcycling collective has hosted five pop up shops; three in Belfast, one in Banbridge and one in Glasgow.

Home - The temporary 50-seater restaurant opened in November last year and is run by chef Ben Arnold, manager Stevie Haller and features ReFound furniture.

Proof - Fashion and jewellery designer Grainne Maher's pop up boutique on the Ormeau Road features her products and other designers' creations.

NineteenThirty - Belfast designer Bronagh Griffin brought her online menswear business to the Lisburn Road on November 25 for six weeks.

PopUp Belfast - Inspired by the craze for 'secret supper clubs', these restaurants popped up for one night only in secret locations in Belfast.

Swatch Showroom - The MTV EMA sponsor ran the shop in Victoria Square for 14 weeks between October and December, to coincide with the awards event.

Granny Won't Like It - Organised by contemporary ceramicist Stephen Farnan, a selection of artists and makers sold their wares. Part of Armagh's Pop Up Shop from November 11 to December 23.

Locksley Furnishing - A six-week long shop on the Boucher Road selling discounted furniture. Opened December 15.

The Art Room - One of the longer-running pop-ups, this art shop was run by a collective of artists in Banbridge between October 2008 and October 2009.

Nick's Wines - The Nick's Warehouse eaterie on Belfast's Hill Street ran a pop up wine shop on the last Saturday of every month in July and August.

Help for High Street

In December, a report into the high street by TV shopping guru and government adviser Mary Portas was published. Its main recommendations included encouraging landlords not to leave shops vacant, measures to promote imaginative use of empty properties and encouraging retailers to test drive low-cost selling options, such as market trading.