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The Empty Shops Network

by Folksy Support

Empty Allied Carpets store, Worthing
Written by Dan Thompson of The Empty Shops Network

You’re already your own factory and cleaning lady, marketing department and book-keeper, tea boy and executive director – that’s the joy of being a self-employed maker. How about adding ‘shopkeeper’ to the list?

Thanks to the trend for pop-up shops that’s exactly what crafters across the country are doing, helped in many cases by the Empty Shops Network’s free to download Empty Shops Toolkit.

I wrote the book based on about ten years experience of running my own pop-up projects, and advising other people as they set up theirs. The first was an old bakers in Broadwater that we used as part of a local festival. We got that shop because one of our group, Revolutionary Arts, was a mature student with a past life as an estate agent. She simply knew what to say, and got us a couple of weeks rent-free. We’ve never paid rent since but we’ve never squatted either. There’s Lesson One: it’s all about charming the keys out of people. Network, make friends, talk to people outside your usual arty circles.

And although we’ve never paid rent, there are costs. Some people think that using empty shops is a way to get things for free. It’s not: there are business rates, utility bills, insurance, the cost of redecoration and furnishing a shop, printing… a hundred things to consider. Yes, it’s a much lower cost than a long lease on a shop, but it’s not free. Nothing ever is.

Furniture is easy and if like me you like buying retro, you’ll have great fun. My shops tend to come with a few vintage chairs, a dash of Ikea, and pro-quality wallpaper pasting tables that have a clean, modernist style! I’m also a sucker for a good vase. Anything to soften the edges and make the space feel lived in, as our shops are often old, scruffy and abandoned when we take them over. It’s not expensive: use Freegle, and beg, borrow and scrounge everything else.

The biggest cost of course is time. Planning, meetings and staffing the shop every day while you’re open all take their toll. Lesson Two; write a short business plan, and work out the costs. There’s a simple way to do it in the Empty Shops Toolkit at www.artistsandmakers.com/emptyshops

Other than thinking empty shop equals free, the other mistake people make is to expect to be around forever – and to get upset when they’re asked to leave. The clue’s in the title. Pop up, pop down. That’s the fun bit, I think. It’s spring and we’re surrounded by things we love because they’re not here for ever. Here in Worthing, the Magnolia trees are looking magnificent. You’ve got about two weeks to catch them. So Lesson Three – embrace the temporary nature of pop-up shops. Pop-up is the point.

Often, a few weeks use of one of the 15% of the UK’s shops that is currently empty inspires someone new to use that shop. A big project we did in Worthing meant that a local businessman visited, and he’s just completed a half-million pound revamp of our old shop, turning it into new offices for his business Fresh Egg. I’m chuffed with that, not sad that we don’t have the shop anymore.

The here today, gone tomorrow nature of pop-up shops is what makes them special. They create a buzz, an energy, an excitement and they get people talking. ‘Did you see…? Did you catch it before it went?’ I love finding pop-up shops, and I kick myself if I don’t make it to one that looked good.

That ability to create a buzz is especially important in this social media age. We use Twitter and Facebook all the time for the Empty Shops Network’s projects across the UK. Lesson Four… well, follow me on Twitter (I’m @artistsmakers) and I’ll tell you this one. Because of Lesson Four, we’ve been able to turn up for a week at the other end of the country, and have friends waiting to help us. We were still unloading the car in Coventry when a friend from Twitter turned up with offers of fresh coffee and cakes.

It should be said that actually, the refreshments are king. Tea, coffee and biscuits are the most important part of a successful project. They do something vital; they show that our use of the high street is different to the mainstream. They’re about giving, sharing and encouraging people to talk. Lesson Five is be friendly, give and share. Well, Lesson Five is probably ‘put the kettle on’ but hey…

That also has an important business effect; with a cup of tea, you can make people stay a little longer. It’s something we worked out when we set up two artist’s open house schemes in Worthing and Horsham. The houses with tea and homemade cake had more visitors and more sales. We’d done something retail experts had been chasing for ages; we’d increased ‘Dwell Time’. Increasing ‘Dwell Time’ is the Holy Grail for retail experts at the moment. We’ve found an easy way to do it and teabags don’t cost much.

In fact, we’re showing those retail experts a whole different way of thinking about the high street. Big businesses want to be out of town, where shops are bigger, easier to refit and there’s more access for big lorries. Shoppers want convenience which supermarkets offer, and cheap stuff from the internet. What we’re doing is turning town centres into places for leisure, culture and creativity.

That’s good for small, independent businesses too. If a town centre’s got independent bookshops, quirky cafes, offbeat fashion stores and quality food shops, a little bit of pop-up activity is the perfect addition to keep bringing visitors into town. Lesson Six: make friends with people in neighbouring businesses and tell them what you’re doing. Make sure they see you as a friend, not as competition.

And if you do that, you’re breaking down an important barrier. People tend to see arts and creativity as something extra, outside the mainstream life of our town centres. They’re not. They’re about people, and our town centres should be too. We’ve all got fed up of boring big business, bland ‘clone towns’ where every high street is the same, and the shabbiness of town centres where retail is king. Like the TV programme used to say, why don’t you switch off your TV and do something less boring instead? Lesson Seven is in the words of proto-punk band The Pink Fairies – ‘Don’t talk about it man, all you gotta do is do it’. Join the pop-up shop revolution, brothers and sisters, and reclaim your town centres for craft, cuppas and conversation.

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Jane Cameron March 31, 2011 - 9:08 am

That’s really helpful. Thank you.

val robinson March 31, 2011 - 9:40 am

When I click on the empty shops toolkit a page comes up but when I click on any link or try to click over a page I am getting an error comment. The contact us and rrs feed is not working either. Is this a technical issue as I was trying to find an empty shop in the lewisham area
regards val

Victoria March 31, 2011 - 10:21 am

Interesting article, I’ve heard lots about popup shops but never really thought too much about the practicalities. Thanks!

Lynsey aka Swirlyarts March 31, 2011 - 11:19 am

This is really interesting as I have had my work in a pop up shop before in Burnley town centre. It was through the LET scheme (Liberating Empty Terrain) and it was great. It was more of an arts venue than a shop and they ran workshops etc. I’d be on board for another event like it in Burnley for sure!

Mia Sabel March 31, 2011 - 11:40 am

I do regular pop-up shops and it’s fantastic for me as a sole trader. Very interesting article and will make use of the info you have given. thanks.

FridayClub March 31, 2011 - 12:20 pm

Very helpful, thanks! Will get to look at the website with the next cup of tea as you’ve def. motivated me!!

Hilary March 31, 2011 - 2:20 pm

“Join the pop-up shop revolution, brothers and sisters, and reclaim your town centres for craft, cuppas and conversation.”

OK! Sounds good :)

Thanks for this article Dan, Pop up shops are somewhat of a mystery to many of us, so it’s really helpful to get an understanding of what else is involved.

Vintage Vision March 31, 2011 - 6:50 pm

This is a great article. We’ve done 2 pop up shops ( though one of them is now permanent!) and it is a brillaint experience! Feel inspired to do more now. Thanks

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