From pop-up shops to permanent storefronts

A tie bar on display in the newly permanent Lincoln Park storefront. (Mallory Hughes / Medill)
A tie bar on display in the newly permanent Lincoln Park storefront. (Mallory Hughes / Medill)

By Mallory Hughes

All of those empty storefronts that plague the city of Chicago will be no more. That’s the goal at least, as pop-up shops spring up in neighborhood after neighborhood.

Storefront, a San Francisco-based company that launched in Chicago in July, specializes in helping retailers, designers and artists nail down short-term leases in prime shopping spots.

The business has been the gateway for about 100 pop-ups in the Chicago area and more than 1,000 in New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“Pop-ups are a way to test the market, different neighborhoods in a city, and a chance to get offline,” said Bryan Steel, a member of the Storefront marketing team.

The Tie Bar, 918 W. Armitage Ave., a Chicago-based retailer that specializes in men’s neckwear, did just that. Established in 2004, the business was online-only for 10 years, allowing men across the country to order affordable, yet high quality neckwear right to their doorstep.

Tie bars, cuff links, bow ties and neckties on display at The Tie Bar in Lincoln Park. (Mallory Hughes / Medill)
Tie bars, cuff links, bow ties and neckties on display at The Tie Bar in Lincoln Park. (Mallory Hughes / Medill)

But in October, they opened their first pop-up shop. It was meant to be exclusively for the holiday season, but when the brick-and-mortar store had unexpected success, they decided to keep it open a little longer.

The store is now permanent.

“It took a lot of pressure off of me because I still have my job,” said Devin Wordlaw, a Tie Bar employee who has been with the pop-up since it opened.

Nancy Gardner, the chair of the marketing and branding committee with the Chicago Art Girls, said their biggest hurdle was finding a large and affordable space for the collective with convenient parking but also near public transit.

Chicago Art Girls’ 25 independent artists came together four years ago to host pop-up art galleries to promote and show their work. They host pop-ups twice a year at Bell Elementary School, 3730 N. Oakley Ave.

“Because we are all independent artists and do shows all over the country,” Gardner said, “it would not be possible to have a permanent store.”

Pop-ups are fun, she said, because they allow the customers to get to know the artists and are part of a larger trend for locally sourced goods.

Alan Kanoff is the founder and “Chief Nosher” of The NOSH pop-up, a marketplace that hosts an ever-changing variety of food vendors ranging from vegan baked goods to Mexican cuisine. He launched The NOSH in 2013.

“I could use it as an opportunity to identify and find new or underexposed talent, in this case chefs, and give them a platform to showcase their creative works in the form of their food to new audiences,” Kanoff said. “And ultimately help them expand their business.

Vegan Red Velvet Brownies
This red velvet brownie is a speciality of D-ology, a local gluten-free bakery that has participated in the Nosh pop-up for about a year. (Mallory Hughes / Medill)

The NOSH is currently hosted at Block Thirty Seven, 108 N. State St., every Thursday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. What started as a two-month holiday season endeavor has been extended to at least the end of February.

“We’ve seen many short-term events focused on testing local demographics turn into more permanent situations,” Steel at Storefront said.

In 2014, e-commerce accounted for only about 6 percent of total retail sales, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“Businesses were almost craving a solution to diving into brick-and-mortar retail,” Steel said.

Pop-up shops allow retailers to open storefronts without being tied down to a long-term, expensive or high-risk lease.

Still, there are hurdles to overcome.

“Early on, it was convincing vendors that we were going to be able to draw an audience of enough people to make it worth their while to come and sell,” Kanoff said. “Then it was doing the right marketing to attract the audience.”

Knowing how to build visual displays, as well as how to present the products are some of the biggest challenges for retailers, Steel said.

“Promotion can be difficult for people to get together sometimes,” he said. “Consider how to best utilize the time [retailers] have in the space.”

Some brands are pooling their funds, creating more opportunities to rent an even bigger or more prime location, Steel said. And some local space owners are closing up their normal operations to make their space available permanently for pop-up shops.

“We’re not just building a future for retail, we’re exposing the secret that brick-and-mortar is the most effective way to reach a targeted audience and grow your business,” he said.

A tie bar on display in the newly permanent Lincoln Park storefront. (Mallory Hughes / Medill)