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Pop-up shops driving new business in retail

There was an article in the Standard on 1st June that caught my eye, offering budding entrepreneurs the chance to win their own pop-up shop, rent-free for two weeks in central London. Not only the shop, but £20,000 of free advertising space in the Evening Standard, a £3,000 fit out budget and expert mentoring.

This got me thinking about the rise of pop-up retail. I know a few people who would jump at the chance to win this prize and I’ve seen a huge rise in various types of pop-up shops over the last few years, not only in the West End where I work but also seemingly across the country. The market has moved on well beyond the times I remember in the late 80s and early 90s where dodgy geezers would be knocking out moody perfume and god knows what else in their “one day only event” from empty retail spaces at the less glamorous end of Oxford Street.

On every season of The Apprentice, we see the candidates operate some kind of retail pop-up unit to see who can get the most sales from whatever stock they chose to invest in, usually in somewhere a bit cool and trendy like Shoreditch Boxpark. Pop-up retail really is big business now.


The article in The Standard values the pop-up retail sector at £2.1 billion a year in the UK alone and this sector is growing at 8% annually. Now, I’m no economist but I’m pretty sure that must be at least 10 times faster growth than the UK economy as a whole at the moment, based on what I read here. That’s a lot of new business being generated at a time when we hear how “the high street is dying”.

One quote in the article goes as far as to state that “Even technology companies are coming to us and finding the High Street can be a better way of reaching new customers than Google AdWords. Retailers wanting to create some excitement can appear and disappear before the crowds have moved on.”

Whilst this may well be the case in many instances, it isn’t always a failsafe method of business development. And I’ll tell you why…


Once upon a time there was a very famous bookshop called Foyles. I know this not only because it was opposite the Alchemis office, but because it has been in Charing Cross Road for many years before the concept of a new business agency was even a glint in Ian Forbes’ eye. Before he was even born in fact.

Last year, Foyles decided to move to new premises – about 50 metres down the road from where they were. Once they did, the original Foyles building became some kind of pop-up retail space. Whoever was in charge of the signage took out the F and the L of the name, so we were left looking at a retail shopfront stating “O Yes.” Not a bad idea really – and certainly cheaper than an expensive bespoke sign for a building that size. But sadly, it didn’t seem to generate the same level of excitement as so many of the other pop-up shops and restaurants that I’ve seen around Soho over the last few years.

It may have been that the retail space was simply too big and looked unenticing and sparse to passers-by. Or it may have been the retailers were selling the wrong type of products for the type of potential customers that were passing by. Or maybe it was really really busy when I wasn’t looking – but as it is directly facing my window I could pretty much see it for 8 hours every day.

For me, I think the saddest thing was the little sushi restaurant that opened up inside. It was kind of tucked away round the back, only visible when you walked up the side street (which even though quite busy with office workers would only really get a insignificant fraction of footfall compared to Charing Cross Road itself). Each lunchtime I would pass the window of this sushi shop and see a forlorn looking plate on the rotating conveyor belt going round and round with nobody in there. And every day I would think to myself “I love sushi”… but the space just looked so unappealing I couldn’t bring myself to go in there. On top of which, my brain says to me “hmmmm… they have a food business serving fresh raw fish but no customers – can I be sure it really would be fresh, why isn’t anybody else there?” I’m sure this is a problem that restaurants the world over may be faced with – tapping into the psychology of potential customers.


And this sums up the business development challenge that a pop-up business faces – even more so with one selling perishable products. You need to attract customers. New business will sometimes come strolling through the door of its own accord, but more often than not it needs a little encouragement.

In this instance, even somebody standing outside handing out small samples to passing office workers to entice them in may have paid off. It surely couldn’t have been much worse. A little investment making that area more appealing in terms of decoration and lighting may have done wonders. A twitter or social media campaign offering discounted meals to the first however many customers each day maybe.

I have no doubt that the pop-up sector will continue to grow – the vast majority of places I see around London seem to be thriving. But don’t leave new business to chance. If you have invested all that money into your products and your space, make sure you keep enough in reserve to market your business to customers in the most effective ways, whatever they may be.

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