Inside the pop-up economy

In the dirge of news about retail failure, where once impregnable institutions like House of Fraser and Marks and Spencer are now husks of their former selves, the high street would seem to be in mortal danger. Right? Wrong, says Ross Bailey, a 26-year-old retail entrepreneur: “The problem is that most high-street stores are crap.”

Lest we forget, 90 per cent of sales are still made in bricks-and-mortar buildings. But shorter leases, changing consumer loyalties and online stores have changed the way we shop. And traditional stores are increasingly being replaced by more short-term “pop-up” solutions. “The death of the high street is grossly exaggerated,” Bailey continues. “It dies when it’s homogenous and uninteresting. When it’s done right, it’s a totally different story.”

In 2012, Bailey founded Appear Here, an online marketplace for short-term retail designed to disrupt the commercial space. Brands go to the website to search for a space, book a time slot and earmark a budget (sites vary in price from “£50 a day to tens of thousands”) and then Appear Here connects them with a landlord. If the brand and the landlord are a match (Bailey likens the process to online dating), the deal goes ahead. Some shops pop up for only a week, others rent for years — either way, it’s a “pay as you go” business, where even the most powerful brands can test a new market without long-term commitment.

“Think of Appear Here as a blend of Airbnb and WeWork for retail,” explains the digital entrepreneur Natalie Massenet, who has invested in Bailey via her new venture capital fund, Imaginary. “It’s good for brands because they don’t have to commit to 20-year leases and multiple millions upfront for fit-outs,” she says. “And it’s good for landlords because Appear Here offers higher overall yields. Sure, they have to rethink their revenue model and have an appetite for risk — but there are more brands in the world that will take space in key locations without the risk of long-term leases than there are brands willing to spend the kind of money brick-and-mortar retailing has required to date.”

Richard Found and Ross Bailey © Appear Here

Today, Bailey oversees a network that includes 160,000 brands and 6,000 retail spaces, throughout London, Paris and New York, and represents every kind of business, from the tiniest market-stall artisans to the most powerful brands in the world, such as Apple, Nike and Louis Vuitton. And the shops just keep popping.

“In year one we probably launched around 70-80 stores,” says Bailey. “Today, we’re launching 300 stores, just in London, every month. If we were a UK retailer, we’d have more shops than any other right now.”

This week, Appear Here launches its next innovation, a six-part collection of modular furniture designed for short-term retail, produced in collaboration with the London-based interior design and architecture firm Found. The pieces can be rented by the week, come in three different finishes (birch, white or black), and include everything the modern shopkeeper might need, from a hanging rail (from £75 per week) to a fitting room (from £120 per week) to a shelving unit (from £35 per week) and a cash desk (from £85 per week).

The collection was designed by Richard Found, whose day job is tending to the look of luxury commercial spaces such as Givenchy, Saks Fifth Avenue and Harrods. He describes the fixtures as “ego-less”, with a focus on “pure design” (he’s especially proud of his hanging rail). All can be adapted to any environment and it’s sleek, simple — and idiot-proof. “There’s one connector for the whole thing,” says Found. “No Allen key, no nuts and bolts. One shelving unit can be assembled in one minute and 30 seconds — and a whole site can be built in one hour.”

The incentives for such a collaboration are many. First, it will scale the business, increasing Appear Here’s profile as a one-stop pop-up platform through which you can also staff and service your store (they can even take care of the floral arrangements, should you wish). Second, it will offer even the humblest of retailers a little more luxury gloss.

Says Bailey: “We noticed when a lot of these stores were launching that often the product was amazing but the little details that were done last-minute meant that a store that could have been a 10 out of 10 was a seven. What we’ve done with Richard is to improve those elements to a standard that a luxury brand, like the ones Richard has worked with, would be happy with and made it accessible to everyone.”

Although the pricing is competitive, both are clear this isn’t budget product. “If someone were going directly to Muji to buy stuff, we worked out it would cost around £2,000 upwards,” says Found, who will offer the modules to his own luxury clients as well as the brands on Appear Here. “But then you’re stuck with the storage costs as well. The beauty of this is that it’s totally flexible. You could start out with 500 sq ft and, three months later, you could take a 1,000 sq ft site and we will add the additional kit.”

Both are feeling bullish about the future of the high street. But they insist it must adapt. “Your store doesn’t need to be in one place any more,” says Bailey. “Before, if you didn’t have your store, your business was over because where would the person find you? Now [with online] you’ve always got a presence that exists.”

And he’s persuasive on the power of the pop-up as a marketing tool. “Digital direct-to-consumer brands are now paying so much for digital advertising that they’re finding a physical store is a better way of connecting to customers than spending the money online.” With social-media reach and the right user-friendly experience, “one little shop can create something that builds a connection with millions of people that don’t even happen to walk past it. Experience is a currency that spreads.”

© Appear Here

Bailey’s hope is that the pop-up will help make the high street “a place of discovery” once more. “Anyone can have a shop,” he says. Some of his favourite anecdotes concern the more unusual enterprises he’s helped bring to life — like the parents who, in lieu of an iPad, bought their son a £600 birthday pop-up from which to launch his T-shirt brand for two weeks.

For a nation of shopkeepers, it all sounds rather tantalising. Anyone fancy going splits on a florist?

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