How to start a pop-up shop

How to start a pop-up shop

By Rachel Segal Hamilton IdeasTap 19/09/13

Pop-up retail is a great way to sell your creative work, test out new products and promote your brand, without the cost and commitment of a permanent shop. As part of The Business, we ask three pop-up experts for advice...

Pop-ups are nothing new. In fact they’ve been around for hundreds of years. “My favourite historical example is Shakespeare, who took over an abandoned monastery gatehouse and turned it into the first indoor theatre in London,” says Dan Thompson, founder of the Empty Shops Network and author of Pop Up Business for Dummies. Like Shakespeare before them, the pop-up businesspeople of today are pioneering new approaches. “What we’re doing is finding out what the future of our town centres will look like", says Dan. “We’re explorers, out there in uncharted territory doing something different.” Feeling inspired? Here’s how to get started.


Find a space 

Pop-up shops are generally located in commercial properties that are temporarily empty while the owner awaits a permanent tenant. But how do you know where these properties are? “There is no central registry of where this happens and often it’s down to local legwork,” says Dan, who recommends you join business networking groups and make contact with your council and chamber of commerce to discover what’s out there. 

If you find this process daunting, there are companies, such as Pop Up Space, that can help you source a location and deal with landlords. “It’s a fine art negotiating a pop-up lease, says Rosie Cann, Director of Pop Up Space. “Our value lies in breaching the gap between our clients without any commercial experience and commercial property agents who expect a certain level of expertise.”  

“You can’t market a pop-up in the same way you do a normal shop, so location is key,” points out Sophie Rees, Director of design agency Designers/Makers, who are running a pop-up shop on Columbia Road, London, as part of the London Design Festival. When deciding on a location, think about where you’d be best placed to catch passing trade and what type of shops or other venues you’d like to be nearby. “With pop-up you can afford a shop you’d never dream of on a long-term lease, so be picky”, says Rosie.


The paperwork

Anyone can start a pop-up shop. You don’t need to be a limited company; you could be a collective or an individual, although remember that if you are employing people to work in the shop there are rules and regulations you have to follow. (Find out more on the HMRC website).

For each pop-up space he does, Dan puts together a contract with the landlord called a License to Occupy. “It’s the same type of license that’s used for Christmas decoration shops and firework shops”, he says. “It’s a standard document, it’s perfectly legal, and is really good for short-term occupation.” You can download a sample here. In addition to whatever rent you agree with the landlord, you’ll also be obliged to pay business rates, taxes on non-domestic properties that vary from property to property.

Landlords often have property insurance in place already but you’ll need to make sure that you have public liability insurance in case if any of your customers are injured or their property is damaged while in your shop. Pop Up Space has developed an insurance policy specifically designed for pop-ups, with a minimum of one month’s cover. “All our clients used to have to take out annual policies and cancel early so pop-up insurance is quite a leap forward,” she says.


Make it look pretty

“These spaces have to look as good as the other shops,” Dan stresses. “They’ve got to be smart; they’ve got to be clean. It annoys me when I go into pop-up shops and they’re scruffy, there are coats dumped in the corner and somebody at counter eating their lunch. “

That said, you don’t have to spend a fortune making it look fancy. Just be creative. “The shop we’re in now has no storage space so we’ve used stacked apple crates” says Sophie. “You can find cheaper ways of displaying things – it doesn’t have to be custom made. A lot of things we’ve got second hand, like old wooden laundry racks and troughs and baskets – but it does take planning.” 


Bring in the money 

As well as having a cash till, you might also want to take payments by credit card. Sophie uses a product called iZettle, which works via an app on the customer’s phone. “You set up a merchant account with them, which can be done within a week, then all payments go through that and they deposit it into your account.” This works out cheaper than getting a standard credit card machine. “Originally I was going to do that, but worked out I was going to pay £180 for the machine and then commission for every sale. With iZettle I pay £99 for the machine and that’s a one off fee.”


Start small and build up

“Don’t go for the biggest shop”, says Dan. “The biggest shop will give you the biggest business rates bill and the biggest headaches.” In fact, when you’re very first starting out Dan suggests you go for the simpler option of using occupied premises, like church halls or schools, out of hours. “If you look round any town centre, it’s full of shops that close at 5 o’clock and cafes that aren’t open in the evening.” You can find places through Dan’s site “All of these have spaces you can use straight away. They’ll let you learn the skills you need and build up the confidence – and also the mailing list.”


Useful resources

Pop up Britain  is part of Start Up Britain, a national campaign to support entreprise in the UK.

Pop Up People is a report on pop ups by Dan Thompson and Pop up Business for Dummies is Dan's book on getting started.

Somewhere_to helps young people aged 16-25  to find spaces to use for free.

Pop Up Space, Meanwhile Space, We Are Pop Up and Appear [here] and help connect people looking for space with landlords.

The Northern Ireland Business Network has a useful guide to setting up a pop-up shop.


Do you have experience of running pop-up shops? Share your advice in a comment below!

For more opinion, interviews and resources, visit The Business.

Image courtesy of Designers/Makers.

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