If you told me two months ago that I’d be writing my next Grow post from an improvised desk in my pop-up fashion shop in West Village, I’d probably respond with something along the lines of, “Um, what?” But that’s exactly where I found myself this morning. The shop is called PRAMU (Pataphysical Research and Metachanics Union) and we opened a few weeks ago with the start of the Tashmoo Biergarten‘s Fall season. It has been a wonderfully hectic month working on this project with the incomparable Dylan Box, a partner in the design firm Wedge Detroit, and I wanted to take stock a bit and share some notes on this strange creature called the “pop-up”.
First, like it or not we live in an era where all sorts of economic era are increasingly temporary. Temporary employment is an old story, although self-employed temping with creative work is usually categorized as free-lancing. Why not intended ephemerality for the food and retail business as well? Just because we intend to close after a finite period of time doesn’t mean that other shops don’t do the exact same thing as a result of unforeseen fiscal pressure or ownership crises. Few entrepreneurs today are in the business of eternality as a matter of lifestyle, though the financial stability of longevity is often equated with success. How many of us really want to build a company that lasts forever? (Perhaps many of us do). And yet, many of the necessary tools for brick-and-mortar business owners are unequipped to deal with the notion that a physical business might intentionally go through periodic non-occupancy or inactivity.
Take insurance, for example. I won’t bore you with the details of arranging a commercial liability policy, but with a partner-owned business without payroll or assets and with an intended occupancy of less than six months most agents told us to take a hike. Generally speaking, we found the same rigidity in any commercial service contract, from commercial internet to leasing interior furnishings. If you’re thinking about doing a pop-up somewhere, be prepared to explain the concept at least five hundred times before you open, especially to older folks. Indeed, a great deal of the good sentiments we got when we opened displayed a cautious optimism, and by far the most common question we got was: “How long will you be here?” To which we variously responded; a week, a month, ’til we close. (The truth is that the dates of our tenancy will remain uncertain based on a number of contingent outcomes, TBD. There’s no time like the present).
But we adapted, and we found others who were willing to adapt as well. In sales you learn the law of averages explains why hard work so often equates to success; the more people you talk to, the more likely it is you find the person you want to talk to. Through this whole process the support of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC), the building managers, the neighborhood association and of course, Tashmoo was absolutely essential for our success and made us really value our opportunity. They shared their networks and together we pooled our local knowledge and called in what favors were available to us. One of our funnest experiments in the set-up process was crowd-sourcing our interior decorations by posting a list of items we thought would work with the shop’s desired aesthetic on Facebook and asking people if they could rifle through their attics and basements for us. The response was amazing, and included jewelry display cases from the basement of Michael J. Hartt, of Hartt Antiques, rugs from Michael Forsyth of DEGC and a beautiful old chalkboard from the basement of Hamtramck’s City Hall. And you’d be surprised how many creatives have a spare mannequin lying around!
Pop-ups are nothing new and programs such as Pop-Up NYC have demonstrated their potential for encouraging and showcasing innovation while driving targeted economic development. However, the tools that enable successful retail pop-ups have evolved relatively quickly over the past five years. Most pop-ups are still organized informally, and many still operate as once-in-a-while lemonade-stand style businesses, cash-only, unincorporated. They form around events and regular streams of people the way that colonies of extremophiles form around undersea hydrothermal vents Then there’s the familiar counterpoise in mall-based pop-ups which major corporations from credit card providers to healthcare insurers use to take advantage of optimal foot traffic. But unless businesses are seeking long-term customers even more regular pop-ups strongly prefer cash, and with good reason. The price for merchant services transactions are a function of volume, and so any low volume business that uses a third party for transactions is going to end up making a little less on every credit card sale.
That being said, in the age of cashlessness by far the most game-changing tool for pop-up retail merchants is Square. On an iPad it’s your cash register, virtual receipt printer, tax and discount calculator, sales report generator and CRM all in one. This probably sounds like a shameless plug for their app, but if you’ve ever done any of these things manually the sheer simplicity and ease-of-use of Square’s design is mind-meltingly awesome, and pop-ups can’t usually afford the cumbersome capital costs of most competitor point-of-sale systems. That being said, like all super-amazing things, when Square doesn’t work you can feel like the sky is falling, especially if foot traffic is heavy or if you rely on Square for a complete inventory price-sheet. For those entrepreneurs out there building digital products for retail businesses, the must-never-not-work factor is huge.
For earlier-stage entrepreneurs, pop-ups can be a great way to do customer discovery, hypothesis-test and adapt in real-time without making a huge early product dev investment. If you have an idea for something you think will sell, you can pop-up for a day or a week to see how people react to it in a physical retail space and real sales situation. You can even test it in multiple locations, multiple seasons and in multiple different contexts (e.g. event-based marketing versus regular business hours) and you can even see how physical retail of a product performs against your online sales. That will tell you something about how the environmental context of the sale affects the buy-impulse of your customers. Even if it sounds like a lot of work, popping up will force you to vet a concept thoroughly before doing investor pitches or beginning to scale. I’d venture that in the coming years we may even see investor groups provide goods-based start-up businesses with pop-up architecture (insurance, legal contracts, promotional tools) to force their portfolio companies to do the trial by fire where and when it makes sense. If learning-by-doing is your thing, there are few better opportunities than popping up.
Interested in checking out the Detroit pop-up scene? Swing by West Village pop-up scene on Agnes St by Van Dyke, part of DEGC’s REVOLVE: Retail Evolution (there’s coffee and ___). Detroit’s infamous pop-up restauranteur Dr. Sushi is a great local example of the success of persistently high quality and leveraged social media networking done right, popping up at St. Cece’s in Corktown tomorrow October 30, 2012. Know other pop-ups in the area? Post them in the comments section!
About Edmund Zagorin
Edmund is a Detroit-based paradox enthusiast and entrepreneur, specializing in video and interactive event production.