As the number of empty shops on the streets of Irish towns and cities continues to rise, enterprising retailers are finding alternative ways to use the space.
So-called pop-ups - temporary businesses, including shops, galleries and restaurants - are doing just that: popping up on streets for weeks at a time, breathing new life into areas where commercial blood had ceased to flow.
‘‘It’s not an Irish trend, it’s a global one," said David Fitzsimons, chief executive of Retail Excellence Ireland, the representative body for the retail industry.
He said pop-up ventures were taking advantage of poor demand for retail space and negotiating short-term leases on a percentage of turnover basis. ‘‘Now that landlords can’t let units to blue-chip retail tenants, they are willing to modify their previous rents," said Fitzsimons.
Local authorities around the country were also keen to rejuvenate dead space.
‘‘There’s a strong policy in the new city development plan to encourage the use of vacant space," said Kieran Rose, a senior planner in the economic development unit at Dublin City Council.
‘‘There’s a lot of Work on an informal basis connecting landlords and developers with potential users." Rose said that pop-ups, no matter how short their stay, had to abide by all relevant rules, including health and safety rules and the need for public liability insurance. Normal planning legislation also applied.
‘‘If the building was previously used to house a shop, then it would be okay to have a shop there, but a change of use might require planning permission," Rose said.
A significant change to the facade of the building or the erection of a different sort of signage could also require planning permission.
While there is no exemption from commercial rates for pop-up shops in the Dublin City Council area, Rose suggested that temporary tenants may agree a rent with the landlord that factors in the rates due on the property.
Elaine Carroll, a project manager with Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council, is working on an EU-backed project to rebrand Dun Laoghaire. As part of the project, the council has launched a pop-up shop, offering temporary space to entrepreneurs and community groups for €150 per week. The unit’s first occupancy, a six-week pilot with a local jewellery designers’ network, came to an end on May 22. Now the unit is fully booked until Christmas.
‘‘The pilot unit is a council property but, if it works, we’ll take the idea to private landlords," Carroll said. ‘‘Ultimately, the end goal is to showcase the area and the business and also to get a long term let for the unit."
It’s not just local authorities that are running pop-up projects. Dublin’s Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) on Ely Place close to Stephen’s Green decided to trial the idea of a pop-up shop after a bookseller operating from a retail unit on the gallery’s premises vacated the space.
Ciara Timlin, the academy co-ordinator at the RHA, said that the gallery used social media to ‘‘put a call out’’ to creative start-up businesses on the hunt for somewhere to showcase their products. About 70 initial respondents made pitches and applications are still coming in. ‘‘We’re probably in the hundreds now," said Timlin.
Eleven businesses were chosen for the initial phase of the project, which started on March 4 and runs until the end of July, with businesses taking the unit for one and two week periods. At the moment, independent design shop Nofixedabode.ie is, which sells furniture, lighting, accessories and gifts, is mid-way through a two week stint.
Given the success of the initial phase of the project, Timlin said the RHA intended to do a second run later in the year. ‘‘It’s been incredibly successful, more than we anticipated," she said. ‘‘I thought that after time we might lose momentum, but if anything, it’s the opposite."
The project is a not a profit making exercise, with the RHA charging just €100 for a one week stint or €175 for two weeks. ‘‘It brings in new people to us. It’s all about a broader audience really, so it’s win-win for us and the businesses," she said.
‘‘The businesses use it to trial products and inform them where they go from here and establish what’s commercially viable," she said. ‘‘From our point of view, it’s grim to see an empty retail unit at the gallery. It’s not very appealing. So this project has brought that corner to life."
According to Ruth Crean, a Limerick-based craft producer, pop-up shops offer a very different dynamic to the markets were small producers typically sell their wares.
Crean established Nice Day Designs in 2006 and is a regular at Limerick’s Milk Market and also sells her stock via e-commerce website Etsy, dubbed the eBay for handmade and vintage goods.
Crean and a number of other craft producers selling via the site have come together under the Etsy Ireland umbrella to run a blog and are also operating a pop-up shop in Limerick to showcase their work to a wider audience. ‘‘We wanted to tap into the boutique market and sell to a different group of people," Crean said.
The group is mid-way through a one month pop-up shop in a vacant space adjacent to, and under the same ownership as, Bourke’s Bar in Limerick city centre. ‘‘We’re getting the space for free and as it’s short term, I think the owner is just happy to see it used," Crean said.
Having a central location means Crean and her colleagues feel they are more likely to attract shoppers than browsers. ‘‘At a market, people pop in for their vegetables and have a browse, but in town, they are more likely to be in spending mode," she said.
For small business owners, pop-up shops can offer a way to dip a toe in the water.
Sinéad Kelly, owner of online vintage clothing company Fluorescent Elephant, uses regular pop-up shops as a means of gauging customers’ reactions to her products.
As an online retailer, Kelly saw ‘popping up’ as a valuable opportunity to interact with her customers and market her business.
After the experience gained from the pop-up model, she is now in the process of selecting a permanent retail space for her business. ‘‘I had never really considered it as a step towards a full-time shop, but from the feedback I was getting it made me investigate the option more seriously," she said.
‘‘It’s a great way to find out if there is demand for your product without incurring major overheads and before committing to something more long term.
‘‘Rents in Dublin are still very high and leases still fairly fixed, so you need to know the business is sustainable before you go for a permanent retail space."
Pop-up businesses can have knock-on effects, both positive and negative, for other traders in an area.
‘‘It’s usually good for business on a street in general," said Kieran Rose of Dublin City Council. ‘‘You often find that other businesses on the street appreciate it, but equally you have to be careful that existing businesses are protected too. There’s no point in undermining existing businesses."
The extent of the threat to established businesses depends on how you defined a pop-up. REI’s Fitzsimons said there were typically two types of pop-ups - the smaller cottage industry businesses making an appearance in prime retail space and the discount retailers popping up next door to established retailers and competing aggressively on price.
‘‘Obviously, it’s a great platform from which to launch a brand or product, especially a design-led one," he said. ‘‘It’s great for cottage industries that wouldn’t have had access to the high street.
‘‘For cottage industry businesses, it’s brilliant for giving them chance to profile their offering," he said. ‘‘A home needs to be found for this type of business, to make it part of the footprint of the city’s retail space."
However, he said that ‘‘opportunistic sellers’’ who acquired low-cost or liquidation stock and establish discount businesses in direct competition with retailers were a ‘‘fault of the system that has created a two-tier retail market’’.
‘‘It undermines the fabric of a street and, in many cases, they are playing on a different pitch in cost terms," said Fitzsimons.
‘‘You have legacy retailers who are still contracted to pay legacy rents and labour costs.
Significant favouritism is being shown to new entrants to the market, with up to 70 per cent lower rents.
They are opening on exceptional terms."
Monday, May 30, 2011
Pop-ups here to stay | The Post