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Going, going… not gone?

Pop-up retail is here to stay in Cleveland

July 12, 2012

By Jordan Stevenson

Take a stroll down Euclid Avenue mid-day during a typical busy work week. What once used to be a hearty epicenter, bustling with crowds of downtown shoppers and throngs of active teenagers is now a skeleton of its former glory days, with vacant storefronts lining the empty street. But, in 2010, Nicole McGee, a reuse artist who ingeniously creates works of art out of leftover materials, infused life back into Euclid Avenue.

Nicole McGee at Collective Upcycle Pop-up shop For 19 days, McGee, owner of home-based studio Plenty Underfoot, and fellow artist Trish Supplies hosted Pop-Up Gift Shop (now known as Collective Upcycle) in an empty storefront in Trinity Commons. McGee, who normally sells her unique items at craft show venues or via her Etsy.com store, offered delicate stationery made from old cereal boxes and intricate jewelry fashioned out of castoff vinyl flooring samples to pop-up patrons.

Closing up shop after 3 weeks may seem like a short-lived shot at the American dream, but for McGee the retail stint was a success. The venue generated a “here today, gone tomorrow” buzz, attracted large crowds of shoppers and grossed $16,000 in sales.

“I do not have my own brick and mortar shop, but organizing Collective Upcycle pop-up boutique twice a year satiates me in that regard,” said McGee, 30 of Cleveland. “It is a ton of work, but it is also endlessly rewarding to set up a space that was empty before and fill it with the amazing work of local artists. There is a magic that happens in the transformation of materials and of vacant space, and it is that magic that keeps us doing it.”

Welcome to Cleveland’s latest retail trend known as pop-up retail. In this increasingly popular business format, stores suddenly appear on the scene, attract hordes of customers and quickly disappear, leaving a once-again empty storefront and buzzing press in their absence.

While pop-up shops may be new on the Cleveland scene, famous brands such as Gap and Gucci, and retailers like Target and Uniqlo have been utilizing pop-up shops in past years in big-city locations like New York City to generate consumer awareness and press hype in advertising campaigns.

With the country’s tumultuous economic state, cities across the county have also latched onto the fleeting pop-up format to fill retail vacancies and drive business to low-traffic areas. Greater Cleveland has also adopted this trend. Popular venues include downtown, Old Brooklyn, Ohio City, Tremont and the Detroit Shoreway.

Terry Schwarz, Director of Kent State’s Urban Collaborative, believes that while other cities across the country are using pop-up shops as a transitional strategy during weak economic times, Cleveland may need to integrate the pop-up format as part of a permanent retail plan.

“Greater Cleveland has a lot of retail square footage per capita — more than most comparable cities,” said Schwarz. “In fact, we were ‘over-retailed’ [at one point in Cleveland’s history] so there is an abundance of vacant retail space downtown, in city neighborhoods and in some of the inner-ring suburbs. Pop-up shops are a way to enliven vacant retail spaces, if just for a little while, and create a dynamic, ever-changing retail environment for local consumers.”

In 2008, The Cleveland Urban Collaborative, an outreach division of the Kent State College of Architecture and Design, launched Pop Up City as a way to tackle urban vacancy. Pop Up City projects have included a partnership with Bazaar Bizarre, a holiday craft shop hosted by local artist Shannon Okey, as well as temporary public spaces and performance venues throughout Cleveland.

“The goals for Pop Up City are to create new, short-term venues for performance and art installations in the city, to increase public interest and market demand for vacant and underutilized properties, and to test new ideas for urban spaces by engaging people in physical approximations of future development uses,” said Schwarz.

With the increasing number of pop-up shops “popping” onto the local retail scene, many experts, including Schwarz, hope for a decrease in store vacancies and an increase in the number of rentals.

According to Ryan Severino, chief economist at Reis, the retail sector of the Midwest is likely to experience modest improvements in occupancy and rents until the labor market finds more solid footing, as The Heartland Real Estate Business previously reported on its website. Despite annual industry projections, the retail vacancy rate in Cleveland climbed 120 points in the recent quarter on a year-over-year basis while effective rents dipped 0.9 percent.

Schwarz stresses that both local landlords and small business owners can benefit from using pop-up shops in a weak market.

“The trend has become popular because commercial real estate markets in cities across the U.S. are weak,” said Schwarz. “When landlords cannot find a permanent tenant for a space, they become much more open to the idea of short-term occupancy. Small entrepreneurs find pop-up shops useful because it gives them a low risk opportunity to a test a business venture.”

Do not be fooled by the fleeting nature of pop-up shops, say local organizers. The effects following the final store transaction are lasting.

“From almost a decade of working with local and regional artisans who sell at my events, I can say with some authority that pop-up shows are not only one of the better ways to make money, but they also serve as a valuable promotional opportunity,” said Shannon Okey, owner of Lakewood’s Knitgrrl Studio and founder of Cleveland’s Bazaar Bizarre.

“Even if you do not sell one thing, people come back to buy from you later because you took the time to engage with them and hand out business card” said Okey. “A lot of the time vendors see an increase in sales after a show because of this factor.”

Jessica Wilson, account executive at Laundau PR, agrees, as she found her shopping experience at Bazaar Bizarre more meaningful than a typical retail outing.

“I actually like the fact that the pop-up stores are not reliable in the sense that they will always be there ¬— it makes the shopping experience more fun and meaningful, especially when you can find an item that is a total steal or is something really unique,” says Wilson, 28 of Lakewood. “It makes it feel like you found a little hidden treasure, in a sense.”