The Pop-Up Revolution: What online shopping means for retail

You’ve probably noticed, retail in Sydney ain’t doing too well at the moment. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that the viability of the retail model has come under serious strain and that online shopping is increasingly becoming the platform of choice for many consumers. Whereas I am a romantic, and I like the idea of perusing through a shop and making connections with other humans (I know, incredible right?), I am not insensitive to the charms of online shopping. I have to confess, I’ve never actually properly shopped online for anything beyond books, but I can definitely see the advantages to online retail. First of all, the choice is much larger. You literally have a universe of options to choose from and space and time is no issue. In a country like Australia, where purchases less than $1,000 do not attract import duty, that is a pretty attractive proposition. Secondly, shopping online from the US is cheaper (yes! including shipping) than shopping in Australia. This is particularly exacerbated by the high Australian dollar (hovering at around 105 US cents as we speak) which has made Australian retail prices nothing short of absolutely ridiculous. The third, and perhaps more disturbing realisation, is that shopping online may on average be much more enjoyable than ‘real’ retail. You can shop whenever you want, you can think about things for weeks if you like and most importantly, you don’t have to cope with some snooty shop assistant bored out of their mind. How many times have I felt like saying to retail staff ‘If what you want is bankruptcy, keep going just like this’. Seriously.

Sydney is no exception to the crisis in the retail business model. Which is ironic really, because all we seem to be building is shopping malls. Westfields ‘Chocolate Box’ Pitt Street, being the latest extravagance. Not only do you feel like you’ve entered the confines of an overpriced perfume bottle, but shops are already starting to move out! Gucci dashed straight in and out of there. Talk of a waste of resources!

Oxford street is also the theatre of the retail downfall. I have yet to get into formal investigations but the actual number of empty shops is astounding. In some stretches, it’s one in 4 shops. And on occasion, you’ll get a whole string of empty displays, a grim reminder of the precariousness of the consumer economy. I’ve been observing this keenly for over a year now, and my trained and interested eye has been identifying how the retail sector has been responding to this crisis in confidence. How can retail innovate?

Walking on Victoria Street with a friend, I noticed a new shop in the location of a former housewares shop that I used to like. The new tenants were selling quite similar gear, but that was something decidedly makeshift about their set-up. I entered the store with all expectations of disappointment but found myself positively surprised when I found out this what a pop-up shop. Interestingly, the retailer was a leather goods online store called ‘Leathershop’, looking for a little ‘real world’ exposure. Ok I wasn’t amazed by their whole range but there were some sandals in the back that caught my eye. 

As I ventured to the back of the shop to have a look at the truly original, beautifully craft leather sandals, the (surprisingly friendly) shop assistant volunteered the information that the range of sandals was locally designed and fabricated and were sold online as Cali/Cale. Leathershop and Cali/Cale had gone in a partnership to rent this prominent retail spot together for 10 weeks. And it seemed to be working! There were not that many sizes left and I was very close to being sized out of the market with my giant feet… Luckily there was a 41 at the base of the pile of boxes, giving me ample opportunity for clumsy removal and subsequent embarrassment.

But this was not the first pop-up store I had come across. I’d recently been to the most savage sample sale at Some Days, at their pop-up store on Crown Street. When handing out my meagre 25 dollars for 3 garments to the shop assistant, I noticed he pulled out an old style locked metal box and in my jovial fashion, I decided to comment on the low-tech nature of his register facilities, to which he responded: ‘this is a pop-up store, we’re only here for 6 weeks!’

Besides the fact that their merchandise was so cheap it was almost a hand out (or heaven for my more fashion-literate friends), there was a question lingering in the back of my mind. Is the pop-up model a trend or here to stay? Is it an end state or a transition model until the retail sector figures out what the h#$% to do next?

I am still undecided on the true answer to that, but I am leaning towards the latter. In line with the Renew Newcastle model spearheaded by Marcus Westbury, short term leases are often a strategy to retain activation in a sector that relies on footfall and visibility. Stay unoccupied for too long and your asset is going down, way down. There’s an exact science to this too. Some of the most recent research we’ve been doing at Arup with bluetooth sensing has told us that the in-depth understanding of ways in which shoppers navigate retail environments is valuable information, information worth dishing out a bit of dollars for too, if you’re a developer or landlord. So I imagine, that in a much less scientific way, maintaining visual and commercial interest in your retail property on a high street would be equally as important as getting a good spot in a shopping mall, only there is less scope for coordination and measurement in a high street context.

What we’re really saying is that pop-up retail, as innovative and attractive as it currently is, is probably a strategy for cutting losses at this stage and has yet to be developed into a fully profitable business model. Or is it? Boxpark in Shoreditch boasts being the first pop-up mall in the world, and their concept seems to be getting some traction. As long as it does not end up looking like a cross between Kensington Markets and DFO, it may have half a chance of working….

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