July 12, 2014

Triangle pop-up stores proliferate, and owners talk of lessons learned

A “pop-up” shop originally referred to a store that operated temporarily, but the term has recently expanded to incorporate businesses of varied purposes and designs in the Triangle.

Emily Cutts and Allison Conley, co-owners of Parlor Blow Dry Bar, want to bring a new kind of business to Raleigh by creating a salon that styles – but doesn’t cut or color – hair.

While so-called blow dry bars are already popular in other cities, Cutts and Conley needed a flexible and inexpensive way introduce the service and establish a clientele in Raleigh. They found it by opening first as Pop Up Parlor in a short-term space on Lake Boone Trail in February.

“A pop-up is not something for financial gain,” said Conley. “It’s a great way to introduce a concept and get to know people.”

Conley and Cutts have since outgrown their temporary booth and plan to abandon their pop-up roots and move to a permanent location in Cameron Village this summer. Neither Pop Up Parlor founder is a hair stylist, but they are hiring employees for the new location.

A “pop-up” shop originally referred to a store that operated temporarily, but the term has recently expanded to incorporate businesses of varied purposes and designs. In the Triangle, pop-ups exist for many reasons including to introduce a concept, test a market, advertise for a permanent location, raise money for charity, unite local vendors or challenge entrepreneurs.

The Triangle has lots of great locations for pop-up owners because so many chain stores were forced to close during the economic downturn, said Burt Flickinger, a managing director of Strategic Resource Group, a retail consulting firm. He said the future for pop-up stores is highly favorable.

“While large and midsized retail chains are contracting, pop-up stores are expanding,” Flickinger said. He attributes the pop-up trend to high vacancy rates and pop-up owners’ desire to test markets and take advantage of good locations during prime selling periods.

Starting as a pop-up has taught Cutts and Conley several lessons.

“One of the benefits of a pop-up is being able to ease into it and get the kinks out,” said Cutts. They noticed a demand for braiding among clientele at the pop-up booth so the new store will feature a braiding bar. The owners will also increase orders for the most popular hair products.

If an entrepreneur does decide to open a pop-up shop prior to moving to a permanent location, Cutts and Conley said distinguishing between the two locations while maintaining the essence of the business is crucial.

Other pop-up owners in the Triangle talk about similar challenges and lessons learned. Here are their stories.

Pop-up ramen

The Lucky, a pop-up ramen noodle eatery, is two friends’ idea of a party. Founders Matthew Bettinger and Zach Neuman, who both work in the restaurant industry, were inspired to create the concept after hosting dinner parties for friends.

The Lucky opened for a day in both April and May, but the owners are taking a hiatus for the hot summer months since they operate outdoors. The May event was held in the parking lot of C. Grace Cocktail Bar, where Bettinger is a manager. The space was free for the first event, but Bettinger worked out a deal with C. Grace to pay a percentage of the event’s revenue. They plan to reopen for a day in August.

Coordinating with the Wake County Health Department caused major headaches for the owners, who recommend restaurateurs look elsewhere to pop up. The venue is set up the day of the event, so once the health inspector came, there was little time to make the needed changes.

Bettinger said the social culture in Raleigh is ideal for pop-up restaurants, but the city’s accommodation is lagging. He said managing a restaurant is like hosting a party every night, and The Lucky is his way of throwing more parties. He’d like to serve beer at the event, but doing so would require additional regulatory steps.

On the day of the event, one vehicle transports all the equipment, including hundreds of gallons of broth, which Bettinger said is a logistical nightmare.

Customers stood in long lines to order food, which frustrated Bettinger. “With my background in hospitality, it’s counterintuitive,” he said.

Ramen noodle bowls work well because most preparation is done beforehand, Bettinger said. The Lucky served 110 bowls of soup at the last event and offered two varieties, but the company will stick to one variety. Bettinger said future pop-up owners should sell one item so as not to risk degrading the product’s quality.

He also said anyone considering a similar endeavor should be motivated by a love of the whole process and not solely cooking, which is only one step.

Pop-ups are not intended to be a long-term investment but can be profitable in the short run, Bettinger said. The owners plan to explore private events, in venues more secluded than a downtown parking lot.

Pop-up consignment

Two self-described “thrifty” Cary women pop up twice a year to host a women’s consignment sale, which in part supports a charity. Candace Anderson and Alice White, co-founders of Designer Consignors, say they learn something new with each sale about improving customer service. White originally held children’s sales but was urged by friends to expand to women’s retail.

Designer Consignors drew almost 800 shoppers during their spring sale, which was also a product drive for InterAct of Wake County, a nonprofit helping victims of domestic violence. When choosing a non-profit, it’s important to the company that the organization helps women, said Anderson.

Anderson said the company’s dual purpose is to be profitable for the owners and to help the community, including consignors, shoppers, vendors and nonprofits.

Anyone can clean out their closet to consign clothes and vendors apply to sell their products at the biannual three-day event. Cary Vision Care was the spring event’s official sponsor. The next sale will begin Oct. 9, and the official sponsor or location has not been determined.

Designer Consignors advertised with postcards and Facebook.

“When people know something is only twice a year, they make an effort to be there,” Anderson said.

The biggest challenge is finding a space. Anderson said most places hold out for a long-term lease, so pop-up owners must wait until the last minute, a problem facing many pop-ups. The spring sale was held in a space at High House Crossing shopping center in Cary.

Jimmy Conder, a leasing representative with Weingarten Realty Investors who leased the space to Designer Consignors, said the intent is typically to turn a temporary deal into a long-term one.

"We do a lot of deals with consignment stores,” he said. “If concepts come in that can make a lot of money for the shopping center and are for profit or not for profit, it’s a win-win situation.”

Anderson said potential pop-up owners should be guided by their vision every step of the way.

“If you want to give back to the community, when it gets tough – and it will get tough – think back to your vision and keep your eye where it needs to be,” Anderson said.

Pop-up art

“Two girls with a space and a lot of creative friends,” is how Pop Up Art Raleigh, a temporary art gallery above the Babylon restaurant, came to be.

Breshnaa Zalal and partner Mandy Tamplin developed the idea as a one-time project to help give their artistic friends exposure. Zalal’s father owns the Melrose Knitting Mill, where the gallery space remained vacant for several years. The venture was originally set to stay open only through May but friends coaxed the owners into extending to July 3.

Summer is a slow time in general for art galleries in Raleigh, Tamplin said. The owners will continue to hold private appointments and provide art for locations in town.

Pop Up Art Raleigh showcased different kinds of art and sold jewelry and coffee, among other things. An obstacle inherent in a pop-up art gallery is the fact that few people buy expensive art on a whim. People think long and hard before dropping five or seven thousand dollars on artwork, Tamplin said. The most expensive item in the gallery is an $8,000 painting.

The owners received overwhelming help from friends and family including the free space from Zalal’s father, free website design, a disc jockey who played at the opening for no cost and free infrastructure and construction work from Zalal’s father. He operates a roofing business above the gallery.

“One advantage we were lucky to have was not having to hunt for a location,” said Tamplin. She said this venture was only possible in Raleigh because of their deep connections, and it would have cost upwards of $50,000 without the help of friends and family. Both owners urge potential pop-up owners to open in a community where they have established relationships.

Pop Up Art Raleigh does not have an online gallery, but Tamplin said this would have been a good addition. The company also did not spend money on advertising, and Zalal said that could have affected sales.

Pop-up balloons

Capital Balloon Studios tried its hand at a pop-up storefront for a week this year leading up to Valentine’s Day. The company traditionally works for specific events, making balloon arches for occasions or balloon twisting at parties. But Crabtree Valley Mall reached out to the business, needing to briefly fill a space. The company has also operated a kiosk at other shopping centers.

“Having a pop-up store for one week at different centers gets us in public eye faster than having one retail store,” said owner Clark Sides.

Sides said shopping centers typically want permanent shops to set up in empty spaces, but pop-up owners shouldn’t be afraid to ask. If he had been intimidated by doubtful friends and property managers, Sides said he wouldn’t have the successful ventures he has today. He plans to open a permanent location in the next five years.

Sides advises pop-up owners to manage their time wisely when setting up the store, because it must be done in a matter of days. He also said to make sure a new venture can fill the location with products to avoid empty shelf space.

Flickinger, the retail consultant, said it isn’t uncommon for shopping malls or shopping centers to offer discounted leases to pop-up stores hoping they will increase foot traffic or eventually sign a permanent lease. Prorated leases can help pop-up stores be profitable, he said.

“Pop-up stores are good for everyone’s business in a given mall or shopping center,” Flickinger said. “They help traditional brick-and-mortar stores by bringing increased customers to where they are.”

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