Pop-up shops: are they the solution or problem?

Soon after it first opened in 2000, the Italian Forum development was a thriving part of Leichhardt which featured an attractive and spacious open-air plaza ringed by restaurants and shops.

You could enjoy an authentic Italian meal or gelato from any of the restaurants which circled the entire plaza, or shop for the latest fashions. And sitting above this bustling show were several stories of apartments, each with their own balcony to allow serious people-watching.

The idea was to re-create the urban atmosphere of many European cities, where residents in medium-scale apartments serviced the shops and restaurants below and spent most of their time chatting and socialising in an open-air plaza. It should have been a hit. It wasn’t.

Unfortunately the Italian Forum experienced a slow decline. Despite its early promise by last year, about 60 per cent of the shops were empty and even the ones with actual retailers in them were shut, according to a story in the Inner West Weekly

Now ‘pop-up’ shops are coming to the rescue of the Italian Forum. Four shops on cheap, short-term leases have set up base, offering creations from start-up designers.

The early evidence at the Italian Forum is that the ‘pop-up’ shops are working and helping bring back customers (see slide show below). Leichhardt Council and an organisation called Renew Australia teamed up last year to push the ‘pop-up’ concept both at the Italian Forum and across the Leichhardt local government area.

The first ‘pop-up’ shops, featuring concepts as diverse as bridal lingerie, hand-crafted jewellery, fabric designers and baby sleeping bags, were launched in March. I spoke to one long-term retailer at the Italian Forum who is paying full rent but is still happy to have the ‘pop-up’ shops nearby, given they help activate the area and bring in more customers. The retailer blamed excessive rent prices and the fact most shops were owned by one person for the forum’s recent problems.

You would have to imagine that the ‘pop-up’ shop concept is here to stay.

At the very least, the concept has an important potential role as a transition to urban renewal. Rather than close down shops as a building or area is awaiting being demolished, turn them over to ‘pop-up’ shops. Similarly, if a new urban renewal area is having trouble attracting new business, then consider innovative and creative ‘pop-up’ shops. As for their ongoing role in existing and well-established centres, you would imagine – like most things – it is best being done on a ‘case by case’ basis.

Where an area has fallen into terminal decline – like the Italian Forum or indeed the Hunter St strip at Newcastle – then you can’t see any harm in ‘pop-up’ shops. If there is a concern that the ‘pop-up’ shops will simply undercut existing retailers, there needs to be greater consideration and consultation.

Support from existing retailers and businesses would also appear to be of assistance. For instance, the Katoomba Chamber of Commerce last year backed a push by residents to fill vacant shops with ‘pop-up’ shops – see http://www.bluemountainsgazette.com.au/story/1640982/katoomba-push-for-pop-up-shops/ The argument was that ‘pop-up’ shops will stop the area from losing its “critical mass” of shops and therefore ensure shoppers keep coming back for more. Many other Sydney shopping strips would appear to be crying out for this sort of concept.

The shops along Canterbury Rd, Canterbury, for instance, have been practically empty for many years, despite being alongside a train station. At the same time, the area is proving very popular for new apartment development. ‘Pop-up’ shops could attract left-field new retailers, willing to take a gamble on a slowly gentrifying area which regular retailers may be unwilling to take, and help transition the area towards renewal.

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