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POP-TASTIC: THE NEW RETAIL ZEITGEIST

05-12-2017   


The zeitgeist is what happens when disparate phenomena decide to get together when no-one is looking.

Capturing it makes it seem like you were in on it all along. In this case, it’s a conspiracy of flounces and it’s about to put cat among pigeon on the high street. The retail fashion industry has finally had a well-aimed kick up its tweed harris, evidenced by a cheeky new arriviste taking up residence: the pop-up store.

At the vanguard of this multi-city, cross-continent short term rental invasion is Storefront. By dint of entrepreneurial enterprise, canny opportunism and hard work, it looks like Storefront, now the biggest, globally positioned pop-up management company is providing the impetus to alter the status quo. And with the traditional retail model in alarming disarray, it’s about bloody time. Time to save a section of the industry from collapsing in on itself from the lack of a viable and meaningful business platform. The fashion industry start-ups are like the first time buyers on the property ladder – remove them from the equation and there’s no liquidity in the market, nowhere to aspire to and no cash to fuel growth.

When first introduced, pop-up stores seemed to just happen as random events appearing on sections of high streets hitherto void of customers. Shoppers were not especially inclined towards the merchandise on offer and it remained an inconsequential part of our active shopping experience. Though they may be still relatively nascent in some cities, the market has quietly matured and they are welcomed beyond their novelty value as a way of injecting excitement back into our high streets. More than this, it’s actually a fundamentally smarter retail business model for a significant and growing segment of the market.

Pop-ups will not replace traditional brand-positioned stores with acres of floorspace, but they are already dovetailing within the retail mix of some big established brands, offering flexible product launch options with valuable market testing prior to expanding across a retail network. Just being able to test the market with non-core design concepts outside their traditional offering is vital for many brands to remain in-sync with consumer tastes. And so now they are choosing the pop up as a complementary strategy. And crucially – all achievable with a cost-effective low risk budget.

While not being for everyone, particularly certain landlords who just don’t get it yet, pop-ups offer a straightforward no-nonsense rental proposition. Shorter-term rentals are easier to finance and offer cash-strapped tenants a vastly improved (if not survivalist) cash-flow management strategy – the sine qua non of the designer short on commercial nouse. There’s one or two of those rattling around the retail graveyards. Akin to the much-lauded Zara strategy of constantly introducing new stock to stimulate repeat customer visits, will pop-ups revitalise our high street in a way high-profile fashion ‘experts’ tried and failed? I’ll plump for a big fat yes. Why? By offering cultivated variety as an affordable constant, not because of wafer-thin fire sale braggadocio (“hurry while stocks last forever ” and “final, final, yes, no really, final, final sale…” etc..) that fools no-one.

Finally, a layer of the emperors new clothes can be removed without embarrassing the white elephant in the room.

There’s simply not enough cash coming into the cash register to make retail as we know it Jim, work for extended periods. Period. Fact is, whether it is a slow burner or rising star, the pop up has come of age for some blimmin’ persuasive reasons.

Seeing the proliferation of this flexible, mutating retail enfant terrible in the hands of Storefront is a real shot in the arm – exciting and extremely refreshing to witness. The art and value of the pop up store if well-orchestrated as a professional service relies on a number of variables. Location is critical. The point is, the pop-up aficionados if they are doing their job, aren’t simply taking up real estate empties willy-nilly, it’s in locations that have cache for the industry sector you happen to be in. Or hope to get in, via the start-up friendly, more affordable model of the pop-up.

It’s what Storefront work hard to deliver against, curating a qualified space-rental opportunity and ‘client-facing’ service with determined effort evidenced by the indefatigable Matthew Greenwell, UK Director and co-founder. It’s hard not to be enthused by Matthew’s adrenalin-fuelled duelling banjo delivery style, purposed no doubt by the potential explosion of opportunity street-by-street, being mapped out in his head across many many industry sectors as he talks – and not just fashion. Think of the travel industry…OMG. There’s tons. He makes you want to rush out and tell people to forget about Brexit for a moment, focus on what’s popping-up instead. (But please do think about Brexit). It’s a lot more positive and it’s happening now. There’s a drive to succeed combined with agile relationship-building that has put them at the head of the game. And it seems deservedly so. They understand customer is King and Queen.

Landlords as one half of the client equation, (ones that are more open-minded), are subtly taught a new rental model from a reliable go-between  delivering a steady stream of rental clients empowered to make better business decisions on how, when and where to spend their cash as an investment in their brand and their business or the positioning of new collections in a pop up for as little or as long as they can commit. Crucially, with time to judge when and if to extend the tenure without pernicious financial pressure.  ” We speak to a lot of landlords and try to persuade them it’s not only better to have some revenue coming into their vacant store than none, but that over time it can be a more reliable, sustainable business model, bringing a new attraction to the space by utilising a more dynamic, enterprising model.” In a way it’s screamingly obvious. It’s a better business model stratospherically more in tune with the vagaries of a fashion world delivering financial inconsistency ad nauseum. And cognisant of the intrinsic problem of the retailer model – that it relies on its most weakest critical dependency for survival: cash flow.

The other half of the equation arguably needs some re-educating too. As a new designer opting for retail exposure it’s vital to understand the business you are getting into bed with. This is a risky game loaded at the start with a probable high rent overhead compounded by long lease tie-ins. There’s no safety net for poor performing sales months. If by attempting to attract the professional buyer, you plump for somewhere new (especially around fashion weeks), is relying a helluva lot on unprecedented goodwill. They must find a gap in their chocker-full diary to come and find you. Oh, must they? It requires some amazing PR, (the same kind everyone feels capable of achieving from a standing start and doesn’t), to convince them to go off-piste to visit your collection down a lesser-known back street. It has been known but just to be clear – hardly ever. And if this is your unique, gilt-edged strategy, it’s statistically predisposed not to work. The curated-located pop-up in this vastly improved energised guise – is what you might consider instead if you are a few haircuts older than just starting out. Ask them (Storefront) why this location has better-performed for the previous tenants for reasons that should be trackable and indicative of your industry sector and target audience. Help them to help you become more commercially aware. And for God’s sake do some research.

Pop ups also represent a level playing field. It’s a model that works for new brands as well as long-established brands (Nike, Chanel et al) conscious of the need to innovate to attract new clients or be first to market. As Matthew commented,” It’s quite a coup to be able to say we can deliver a new international presence for a brand in four new markets simultaneously via strategic deployment of the flexible pop-up – and at a compelling cost.” Speed to market of collections is a critical factor for brands vying to gain market traction and manage production requirements. Also, being visible at the right time in the right location is a clear strategic advantage to attract professional buyers with limited budgets. Seeing that you have done your positioning homework as a brand may also help them feel they are working with a street-savvy professional. And let’s not forget – most importantly, the fashion consumer able to find you in familiar locales can only help sales.

Why is this all so astoundingly relevant only now? For some reason new entrants to the fashion industry fail to learn generationally from its own over-ambitious foolishness. The “don’t question it, it will be different for me” pact-with-self syndrome. Over-stretched, over-reaching new designers behave like roulette players in a casino, with compulsive leaps of faith onto a retail situation that they are so ill prepared for, it can only end in tears. Usually a bigger post-grad financial hole that they may never get out of. This can be avoided. Being ready, means knowing when to invest in the retail space as an outlet for your business – if an outlet at all. And that you have mitigated the risk by your own research and emerging business acumen.

The seemingly ubiquitous pop-up is converting failing retail outlets on a daily basis to a more fit-for-purpose rental proposition. This provides a lower financial risk and less onerous business platform as a stepping stone for new renters. This is great news all round as a more viable model for our times for high streets, landlords and the short-term retailer wannabes. It is unquestionably more sustainable. Finessing the pop-up within the business mix of new designers should be on the curriculums of fashion courses. It’s typically the weakest segment and ask any shell-shocked post-grad, the most important segment. It doesn’t need government interference. In the hands of Storefront it is a lean, commercially driven enterprise, taking care of business all on its own. Thank goodness. It may just be one of the saviours of our retail (fashion) industry.

The stats are impressive. In a relatively short period of time since launching as Oui Open two and a half years ago and as a result of the recent merger with Store Front, they now have 10,000 spaces globally across three continents comprising 30,000 square feet. The client list has the biggest names – and the upcoming brands – go see for yourself www.thestorefront.com.  But there’s also innovative space curation taking place. Gumtree took space to demonstrate and fit out taking the physical content from their website in a styled living space.

For Storefront there’s a clear drive to be first, the biggest, with the best locations positioned globally. Matthew understandably is not keen for his competitors to know his next moves. Suffice to say, there are global expansion plans and in markets that should be very interesting and rewarding for the fashion industry. It’s a clear case of watch this (and that, and that one…) space.  There are natural synergies that they intend to leverage from scale and a depth of business engagement with brands and landlords alike playing a bigger part of their strategic marketing and business development plans. They already secure space bookings for the bigger, established players a year in advance who know to get the better positioning at key fashion weeks you have to plan ahead. Their concierge service will automatically expand in unison with this customer-focused relationship model as they work towards one of their mission statement ambitions to ‘build an automated marketplace’. In their hands, pops ups my friends are game changers.

Cosying up to a new paradigm in the retail space has the potential to irrevocably change how things move forward. With Storefront, it’s insidiously groovy, incisive and a fast way to market. Jump on board the pop-up train is pulling into a location near you. Here’s an idea TFL/ Sadiq / Fashion World etc…let’s have pop-up carriages on our in-vogue all-nighter trains. “Pop-pop…pop-metro…Everybody’s talkin’ about pop…”

By Paul Markevicius

 

 




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