gone in 60 seconds: why pop-up shops are here to stay

In the movie version of Nicole McGee's life she's a happy shopkeeper, selling the ingenious flowers she creates from castoff vinyl flooring, sharing her creative reuse philosophy, and teaching customers a crafty skill or two.

In real life, McGee is an artist without a shop. She operates her company, Plenty Underfoot, out of a home studio and sells her jewelry, stationery, flowers and gifts at craft fairs, art shows and through etsy.com. Yet last year -- for 19 glorious days -- McGee got to live out her fantasy as a retail goddess.

That's when McGee and artist Trish Supples hosted Pop-Up Gift Shop in a vacant storefront on Euclid Avenue. The ephemeral venue earned great press, attracted gobs of shoppers, and grossed $16,000 in sales.

Welcome to the increasingly popular trend known as pop-up retail, in which shops spontaneously appear, suck in big crowds, and vanish as quickly as they came.

This year, pop-up stores will appear in Old Brooklyn, Ohio City, Detroit Shoreway and downtown. While pop-up shops are anything but new -- retailers like Nike and Gap have employed the practice since the 1980s to great effect -- they're now being used creatively in Cleveland to address retail vacancies, drive traffic and create buzz.

"For retailers that don't have a store, pop-up shops provide a way to test and sell their wares in the market, while breathing life into vacant storefronts," explains Danielle DeBoe, owner of Room Service in Ohio City and creator of the popular Made in the 216 events, which features the work of local artists and designers.

"Most artists don't want to open a store because it's hard to do that and make your stuff," explains Shannon Okey, owner of Lakewood's Knitgrrl Studio and founder of Cleveland's Bazaar Bizarre, an indie craft show. "So they rely on shows and pop-up shops."

Landlords, community development corporations and nearby businesses have all embraced pop ups. But the trend is more than just a stop-gap measure to fill vacant storefronts, says Terry Schwarz, Director of Kent State's Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative. Rather, they have become an effective tool in addressing the problems that arise from a shrinking city.

"Cities across the U.S. are using pop-up stores as a transitional strategy in a weak market," explains Schwarz. "But in places like Cleveland, they may need to be part of our permanent toolkit."

While the shop itself is fleeting, the positive effects of a successful event can extend well after that final sale, organizers say. Often, these short-term shops are just what's needed to help young startups flourish and grow. "There's a multiplier effect," says Okey. "People grab your business card, and vendors find they get a flood of orders through their websites after the event."

DeBoe cites as an example Made in the 216 vendor Small Screen Designs, which enjoyed sales growth following pop-up venues across town. "They became known through pop-ups," notes DeBoe. "And now they're selling their work in other states."

For pop-up stores to be truly successful, say organizers, they must be nestled within an existing retail district. "You need built-in foot traffic and a critical mass of stores to make it work," says Valerie Mayen of Yellowcake, a trendy Cleveland-based clothing company.

It's also critical to build relationships with community development groups and local businesses, advises Marilyn Mosinski of the Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization (DSCDO), a property owner that has successfully used pop-ups to fill vacancies. "Last year, Made in the 216 was our biggest weekend, so there's definitely an economic impact on the entire community."

Property owners caution that while pop-up stores can indeed help plug vacancies, they are not without downsides. "We often have to give away space for free or for little rent, but we have expenses," explains Mosinski. Nonetheless, she says the increased marketing exposure can help snag long-term tenants, making those upfront costs worth it.

Of course, not every landlord can afford to donate space. "Owners want to know what's in it for them, and they may hold out for a long-term tenant," says Lori Peterson, Residential Marketing Manager with Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation (OBCDC) and organizer of Pop-Up Pearl.

Michael Deemer, Director of Business Development with Downtown Cleveland Alliance (DCA), says it is "too soon to tell" whether pop-up stores will pave the way to more permanent retail, but his fingers are crossed. "We want retailers to see what it's like to open a store downtown," he says. To that end, DCA is organizing the second annual Cleveland Furniture Fair at the Halle Building.

While would-be merchants are drawn to pop-up stores because of the short-term commitment, that doesn't mean they're not time-consuming to pull off. "You have to ask yourself, 'Am I going to get enough sales to justify all of this work?'" says Mayen.

Still, it's nice to look forward to folding up your sandwich board sign and going back to your regular life, McGee says. "You can pop down and no one holds it against you."

For many pop-up shopkeepers, the best outcomes include the new relationships forged and the increased sense of community created.

"Most of the artists were people that I'd never met before," says McGee of the soon-to-open store Collective Upcycle. "And now we're working together."

Check out these upcoming pop-up events:

Yellowcake is hosting a 10-day store at W. 65th and Detroit Avenue starting April 15th.

DCA is hosting the second annual Cleveland Furniture Fair May 19 to 21 at the Halle Building.

Pop-Up Pearl will take place on Pearl Road in Old Brooklyn on May 21st.

Collective Upcycle will take place June 11 at 6710 Detroit Avenue.

Bazaar Bizarre will appear at this year's Larchmere Festival on July 2nd

Made in the 216 will pop up on East 4th Street this summer from July 8 to 10.

Photos Bob Perkoski
- Photos 1-6: Artist Nicole McGee
- Photo 7: Yellowcake Pop Up store 

Photos Amy Roskilly
- Photos 8 - 11 Pop Up store at Trinity Commons last November

Read more articles by Lee Chilcote.

Lee Chilcote is the author of the poetry chapbooks The Shape of Home and How to Live in Ruins. His writing has been published by Vanity Fair, Next City, Belt and many literary journals as well as in The Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook, The Cleveland Anthology and A Race Anthology: Dispatches and Artifacts from a Segregated City. He is a founder and former executive director of Literary Cleveland. He lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood of Cleveland with his family.
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