Pop-up retail boosting downtowns, aspiring entrepreneurs

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Bobby Price, left, and Catherine Vogt, right, stand with Catherine’s daughter Avery, 8, and their dogs as they wait to order from the YS Street Food food truck, Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, near the suburb of Lynnwood, Wash., north of Seattle. Long seen as a feature of city living, food trucks are now finding customers in the suburbs during the coronavirus pandemic as people are working and spending most of their time at home. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

BOSTON (SHNS) – The future of retail is pop-ups — but it’s not the seasonal Halloween stores that materialize in strip malls when the leaves start to turn brown that have the potential to liven up downtown areas, several industry experts said Thursday during a virtual panel discussion.

Rather, it’s a whole host of businesses that utilize temporary spaces combined with events, music, and food to draw people to town centers. And as the state continues to move past the pandemic, retail experts and local officials say pop-ups could play a large role in economic growth and commercial development.

Take Ashland’s The Corner Spot, for example, where town officials revamped an old shed to allow businesses to take out temporary leases and hold events. It’s been around for about four years, and since then it’s served as a destination for live music, food, and shopping, according to one town official.

The area also serves as a space for businesses to test-drive markets, residents to come together, and a way to increase downtown foot traffic to support existing brick and mortar stores, said Ashland’s Economic Development Director Beth Reynolds.

“The future of retail is pop-ups, too. It’s definitely a piece of it. So I don’t think that they should be underestimated,” Reynolds said during a Newton-Needham Regional Chamber virtual panel discussion. “I think there’s a lot of power in them. I think it helps a ton of people really start off, or even just continue what they are doing. It’s putting people to work. There’s so much value in them.”

So which businesses use pop-up spaces? Mike Kelleher, Federal Reality’s vice president of specialty leasing, said roughly 75 percent are people looking to try out new concepts without committing to a permanent brick and mortar location.

For example, Kelleher said he started working with celebrity chef Darnell Ferguson — who appeared on the Food Network’s cooking competition show “Chopped” — to set up pop-up restaurants where Ferguson can try out different concepts.

“There’s just no limit to what folks are doing out there now,” Kelleher said.

Allison Yee founded UpNext, a matchmaking platform that’s designed to connect brands that are looking to do pop-ups with spaces that want to host them. She said pop-up retail serves as a “strategic tool” for municipalities, brands, and landlords.

“They bring people together because they serve as an event, generate excitement, and buzz and give you reasons to keep coming back to see something fresh,” Yee said. “They’re just really additive in terms of who benefits and how it helps to gather a crowd.”

John Rufo, a partner at Form + Place, said pop-ups “are here to stay.”

“It’s got such great ability to bring people together. It’s a real connective tissue and it really catalyzes placemaking, I think, which I think is a terrific aspect of it,” he said.

There are concerns, however, that pop-up businesses may draw people away from existing businesses like a restaurant down the street from a food truck festival experiencing a loss in foot traffic.

Reynolds pushed back against that notion, saying that pop-up events have instead helped drive traffic to brick and mortar businesses in downtown Ashland.

“In my history, I’ve kind of seen that it actually does help our businesses because it is bringing more people down and people from out of town to. The Corner Spot’s been great for that,” she said. “You’re coming from other areas, and you see, oh, Erica’s Restaurant is right down the street, I want to try that out or Stone’s Public House, there’s a lot of history on that, I’m going to come back to Ashland.”

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