Struggling high streets are getting a surprising boost from an unlikely source – online retailers – as hybrid shopping takes off, writes JULENA DRUMI
Online retail is widely viewed as the nemesis of the high street, the invisible trader knocking the heart, soul and commercial vitality out of our towns and cities. However, a new phenomenon is taking hold that is seeing virtual sellers play a growing part in helping physical stores to thrive.
Pop-up shops are literally springing up in streets, arcades and malls, providing a new hybrid model that means online retailers use short-term physical stores to complement and grow their online sales and brand awareness.
The trend emerged on the west coast of the US as early as the 1990s and by 2018 the pop-up industry was estimated to be worth $50 billion. The changes in retail that accompanied the 2020-2021 pandemic will have pushed that considerably higher.
The pop-up has now become a staple part of many retail strategies, from new brands looking to build a name to the already established and even luxury brands that have found them to be beneficial as a form of experiential marketing, as well as to test new ideas and locations.
For retail landlords, they’ve also become a way for shopping centres to continually offer something new, and something to talk about, as well as providing a source of revenue on otherwise empty units.
A pop up requires a much smaller investment than a permanent store, which means the retailer can figure out what works without the huge commitment. It also allows them to be more innovative – they can test out more ideas and see what resonates with customers.
Sook, the pop-up space operator, says many online-only sellers are now moving towards this model because the financial and systemic hurdles that have prevented innovation are slowly disappearing, and brands can now rent a space in towns and cities across the UK on a daily, weekly or even hourly basis.
It’s a hopeful sign, the company says, based on reimagining the way we shop and paves the way for a fundamental high street renaissance driven by online independents.
Sook CEO John Hoyle says: “While many see chain stores pulling out of our high streets as a sign of high street decline, we see it as progress.
“By reimagining our high streets, we can ensure independents have the ability to innovate and effect sustainable change.”
For Nicole Stark, the 19-year-old founder of 90s vintage clothes reseller Glownic and the Studio 88 collective, pop-ups are a key part of her sales strategy on peer-to-peer fashion sales app Depop.
“I think we’ve come full circle,” she says. “While the demographic that Glownic caters for are very dedicated online buyers, they also want to do a day out shopping. It’s a novelty they have not experienced on their own terms.”
The art history and English student at Edinburgh University has used Sook’s digitally-enabled store in the St James Quarter shopping centre to take her brand to the next level.
She says: “The nature of Depop means that you have to continue to push to stay on top and pop-ups and events are really important for that.
“If you do stop, another seller can get into your place and you’re back where you first started. The fluidity of the high street means it’s more accessible and that’s important.”
Emily Hughes, head of events at Glass Onion Vintage, is clear the high street is an increasingly important sales strategy for her vintage upcycler and retailer.
The Barnsley-based firm takes a short-term lease for up to four days at a time and works on a ticket system, offering discounts to online customers to visit the store.
She says: “Taking a store extends people’s attention span and the brand. We have pop-ups every month in key locations like Birmingham, Newcastle, London and Bristol.
“We’re seeing the high street as a key way to change people’s taste for fast fashion toward the sustainable route. There’s been a school of thought that buying from an independent is a privilege and expensive – but more often than not, it’s actually more affordable. The high street is helping us change that perception.”
Danielle Mass, 25, founder of Remass, the world’s top seller on Depop, launched her sustainable mix of vintage and own-brand clothing online three years ago.
She now employs a fast-growing team in her North London studio – and across the world and plans to widen its use of pop-up stores to deliver an eccentric ‘IRL’ [in real life] shopping experience for its dedicated fans.
Remass achieved the top spot status on Depop for the past three months, partly with its mastery of the Gen Z focused platform, but also its prowess on digital channels like Instagram and Tik Tok, where it has 28,000 followers. Translating that into bricks and mortar sales is the next step in its evolution.
“I’ve always loved selling my own stuff on Depop,” she says. “It was just a hobby to start with, but I realised its potential when my friends approached me to sell items for them. It has just grown from there.
“Although physical retail will never be a huge revenue stream for us, in the one-off pop-ups we do, we tend to shift quite a bit of stock. For Remass and other up-and-coming online retailers, the high street is not dead.
“While Generation Z make the majority of their purchases online, they are still hungry for experience. We’re not used to pop-ups and we’re not used to IRL selling, so for us, the high street is about cementing our brand even further, meeting new and regular customers and having fun.”
The brand’s two-day residency in Oxford Street, for example, saw the brand use DJ sets, a photobooth and a sponsorship with shots brand Jägermeister and collaboration with UK drinks brand White Claw.