Are pop-up shops revitalising the brick-and-mortar retail economy in London?

Pop-up shops are giving new leases of life to vacant retail shops on high streets and dormant units in railway stations in London.

According to a report carried out by Eclipse Group Solutions, the number of pop-up shops in the UK increased by 18% in 2023.

Some believe pop-up shops could be the answer to the declining traditional brick-and-mortar retail shop set-up, as we continue to see big retailers, such as Wilko and Debenhams, close their doors.

Former online vintage clothing business owner Tillie Peel, 31, founded The Pop-Up Club in 2017 to provide local, online businesses specialising in craft products and sustainability with a brick-and-mortar experience.

Peel said: “I had my own vintage clothing brand and I was trying to sell online but I really wanted my own shop.

“As I looked into it, with everything involved, I realised I couldn’t afford to move into a shop and that my dream of being a shop owner wasn’t going to be possible.

“At the time, I was renting out my room and sleeping on my sofa in my flat to make ends meet.

“Then it struck me – I was sharing my flat to be able to afford my rent, so why don’t I just do that with a shop?”

Tillie Peel at her pop-up shop in Victoria. Credit: The Pop-Up Club

Peel attributed the rise in pop-up shops to the shifts in the retail landscape caused by the pandemic, highlighting it as a significant factor that changed the opinions of landlords, entrepreneurs and consumers.

Peel explained: “A lot of landlords were scared of what was going to happen with Covid-19.”

“Pop-up shops became a really flexible option because we can go in, activate a space, give variety and introduce new retailers and small businesses to the high street for a short period of time with little commitment.

“During the pandemic, a lot of people started thinking about what kind of world they really wanted to see and started making their own businesses and thinking more about their consumption choices.

“People want the human connection through meeting the designers and they connect to the brand more because it is made locally or sustainably.”

A shopper in The Pop-Up Club, Victoria. Credit: The Pop-Up Club

The importance of community is another factor that Peel recognised drives entrepreneurs to want to get involved with pop-up spaces.

Peel said: “A pop-up shop fosters a sense of community more than a typical high street shop might because you’ve got this huge network by having lots of different sorts of artists involved in your pop-up.

“Being an entrepreneur can be quite lonely but through being part of a pop-up you have those people around you in the same boat, a lot of which are women, all going through the same challenges as you which is a massive benefit.”

The Pop-Up Club has been very successful, and Peel has transformed nearly 30 retail spaces in cities across the UK.

Her current London Victoria pop-up has been extended by six months, which she shares with between 30-40 different artists and creators of sustainable brands.

Peel said: “We have people who follow us around the country from one pop-up to the next, and follow the brands they really like online, introducing them to new businesses, designers and artists that they then follow.

“We’ve had small businesses go on and open their own shops and spaces up, they have gone into studios or workshops, they have hired staff because they are growing or they have gone on to do bigger collaborations with larger companies and wholesalers.

“You have a unit that is going to be empty being used, you generate so much community engagement, you support small, sustainable businesses and give people better choices of where they are going to spend their money, which is going to benefit the economy and the planet, what is not to love.”

Art work for sale in The Pop-Up Club, Victoria. Credit: The Pop-Up Club

Ellie White, 24, a regular pop-up shop goer, prefers to shop at pop-ups over typical high street stores.

White said: “I love pop-up shops because they’re unique and usually more of an ‘event’ than normal high street shops.

“In pop-up shops, you get to meet the people who own the brand and design the clothes or items that are sold which encourages you to shop local and independently rather than going to big high street retailers because you get to know the people behind the brand.

“I also just like the idea of finding something unique in a pop-up shop and knowing that it is not being sold anywhere else because bigger high street shops tend to follow the same trends and sell similar stuff.”

A fellow shopper browsing the goods at The Pop-Up Shop, Victoria. Credit: The Pop-Up Club

It is not just high streets that are getting re-vamped with pop-up shops in London.

Network Rail has expanded their fashion line-up in their London stations by signing Good London for vacant unit spaces at London Victoria and London Bridge.

The owner of Good London, David Brinfon, 42, set up his pop-up shop to marry the best of vintage, second-hand and charity with commercial.

Brinfon said: “We wanted to do retail with amazing products from the vintage, second-hand and charity market but put it with the standards you get from commercial retail, such as the great service from staff, the good aesthetic in the shop and the nice smells.

“The exposure of our brand has been immense because by being located at the stations, it has been seen by over two million people a week, and by people who wouldn’t have even known our brand existed.”

However, Brinfon feels that it is in the hands of landlords as to whether pop-up shops can completely revitalise London’s brick-and-mortar retail economy.

Brinfon said: “Sadly, we are not going to be staying in the stations, as although we have done really well, the rates that network rail are quoting for us to stay are too expensive.

“The landlords that are forward thinking will do really well as they can give people a really amazing opportunity and they can prove the concept of the business over time.

“Landlords need to trust in the process and open up to the idea that this is how our new high streets and retail spaces might look.”

Featured Image Credit: The Pop-Up Club

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