A nation of pop-keepers?

 With the prospect of unheard of levels of store vacancies when the West End emerges from the current lockdown, central London needs some fast answers. Can pop-ups and flexible space fill in the blanks?


Words: Mark Faithfull

Just what will London’s West End look like when the lockdown finally ends and people are able to return to the shops and restaurants that, for so long, have defined the ‘World’s High Street’? Resilient in the face of so many challenges over the past decade, some of London’s best-known retailers have finally buckled under during the pandemic.

A story that might have played out over 10 years has come to pass in 10 months and the challenge for those charged with maintaining the West End’s lofty retail position is how they reinvent it for the modern age. One of those solutions may be the rapid and widespread deployment of pop-ups and flexible space.

As Emma Jones, founder of Enterprise Nation, points out, a record number of start-ups launched last year, largely constrained thus far to trade online. Many are itching to get face-to-face with their customers. Jones has been involved with numerous pop-up and temporary space projects, most notably a joint venture with Amazon to introduce makers to their audience. And online start-ups have become highly aware of what they want to achieve from taking physical space.

“They no longer want space simply to sell – they understand it’s about engagement and telling their story,” says Jones. “It’s about being face-to-face with people who have bought from them online. I really feel that 2021 could be the year of the pop-up.”

And she believes that in a rapidly-changing world, the heritage of the West End keeps it in poll position. “For so many small brands, the pitch is not just about footfall, it’s about kudos. The caché of saying they had traded on Oxford Street is huge,” she says. “We ran a pop-up initiative at Piccadilly Circus where the Tiger store now trades and it was the location that really wowed the brands.”

Of course, pop-ups and flexible leases are nothing new. First used by major brands to create buzz, their application has become widespread. Indeed, the Mercato Metropolitano in a former Mayfair church and the Market Hall West End at the former Bhs on Oxford Street are examples of this approach – the food halls may be permanent but their tenants rotate and change.

Specialist agencies have also formed to manage short-stay locations. AppearHere head of partnerships, Becky Jones, adds: “Having banged the drum on this for years, we are now seeing landlords coming to us to talk about flexible space and short-term lets and what they can do for tenants. We have come 10 years in 10 months, which is kind of amazing. Much of that interest has been in the London neighbourhoods rather than in the West End. There is a sense of London becoming a ’bagel-shaped city’, where all the good stuff is round the outside, as brands move to where people live. So the first task is to attract those brands back to the middle.”

Sook opened on South Molton Street 18 months ago and has a second unit at 58 Oxford Street. It takes over a space and gives it a fresh fit-out and installs perimeter video screens. At South Molton Street, Sook has had take-up from artists and galleries, plus retailers, hosted book signings, yoga and personal instructor sessions, and evening events. It has also attracted Amsterdam-based Six and Sons, a platform for sustainable brands, which created a three-day pop-up at Sook in the Autumn.

“Clients can book space from an hour upwards using a drag and drop system online, or regular slots, at times to suit them,” says COO Dan Burnham. “The high street is the original social network and we want to change the business model and make it accessible and democratise retail by removing the high barriers to entry. It’s about space as a service. What’s great is that we drive traffic at low footfall times for the other retailers. The use can constantly change.”

“For landlords and pop-up operators, the key is to effectively market the space, so people know it’s there, and also to consider whether it’s for big brands or independents and new names. My experience, so far, suggests location is everything,”

Major landlords Grosvenor and The Crown Estate are among those to have made space available for flexible tenancies, as has The Howard De Walden Estate for Marylebone Village. Jenny Casebourne, retail & leisure director at The Howard De Walden Estate, reflects: “As we come out of lockdown, there are going to be a lot more opportunities and that will allow us to trial brands, and them trial the West End. Previously, brands such as Luca Faloni and Koibird have started with temporary space and then converted to permanent leases.”

For others, the intention has been to create an impact. “Misha Nonoo came with a pop-up in June, which she had intended to take to other major cities worldwide,” says Casebourne. “That means we can bring something to our visitors unavailable elsewhere or online. And it also gives us the opportunity to look at our portfolio – we have identified that we would like to bring in more dining, so using flexible space means we can focus on place activation.”

Another to have trialled pop-ups is Fay Cannings, founder of Seekd. The Seekd Collective multi-brand pop-up at the Princes Arcade, Piccadilly, focused on affordable luxury jewellery and ran for three months with The Crown Estate, which supported it with marketing across its websites. In all, 10 brands took part, rotating on a monthly basis to control costs.

Cannings believes that pop-up stores can activate spaces and mobilise people to visit. “For the West End, the opportunity to attract local is more than about the immediate residential area but those within a walkable distance – there is a big trend for people to walk to places – along with local office workers once that restarts, of course,” she says, stressing that she would like to see landlords proactively reach out to companies such as hers.

“For landlords and pop-up operators, the key is to effectively market the space, so people know it’s there, and also to consider whether it’s for big brands or independents and new names. My experience, so far, suggests location is everything,” says Cannings. “For established brands, off-prime locations can work because they are a draw in themselves. For new and independent brands, you really need high footfall locations.”

Sook’s Burnham adds that this opportunity to get in front of casual shoppers is where Oxford Street differs from South Molton Street: “The aim is to bring life back to the high street with a space that can be used by big brands but, through flexible pricing at different times of day and week, enables small businesses to access shoppers they would never otherwise be able to engage with,” he says.

This need will never be more acute than over the next 12 months, while travel restrictions put the emphasis on staycationers and Londoners.

“To make the West End accessible to start-ups really would bring a huge amount of energy to Mayfair’s retail,” says Enterprise Nation’s Emma Jones. “The big question is whether the pandemic has shocked landlords enough for them to hand their spaces over.”


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