Sunday 16 March 2014 11:43 pm

Pop-ups are coming to the Tube: Three ideas for how startups can hop onto the trend successfully

POP-UP shops could soon be appearing at a Tube station near you. On top of reports that Transport for London is exploring turning obsolete ticket offices into online delivery collection hubs, it signed a deal last week to make its retail property empire available for temporary occupation. Its estate amounts to 1,000 retail premises within Tube, rail and bus stations, and a further 1,200 arches under railways. While most have long-term occupiers, and only 15 units will become available any time soon, this could amount to a significant opportunity for startups to lease attractively-located property with guaranteed footfall.

This is not necessarily condemnable zeitgeist-hopping (pop-ups are hardly new). With high street vacancy rates still high, landlords are arguably more willing to entertain extremely short-term leases to avoid empty property contagion. It is also relatively easy for startups and landlords to draw up hyper short-term leases. PopUp Britain has teamed up with law firm Dentons to provide a free template, for example.

But what is the point of pop-ups exactly? While there’s obviously no single answer, they’ve been criticised as gimmicky, and have certainly shifted beyond their original rationale. Initially the preserve of edgy brands like Commes Des Garcon (which launched its first pop-up in Berlin in 2004), and intended as brand development tools rather than for stock-shifting, they’ve since acquired a wide range of uses. As viewers of the recent return of TV’s Birds of a Feather will know, a pop-up can even be a way to accumulate early capital.

So while this should not be taken as a restrictive list, here are three ideas for how startups could use pop-ups successfully.

Ironically, pop-ups may be of most use to online retailers. In research published by the Sloan Management Review last year, David Bell, Jeonghye Choi and Leonard Lodish analysed the success (or otherwise) of online stores. They found that one of the best methods for acquiring new customers is to forget the limitless frontiers of the internet, and to target specific geographical locations. One way of doing this is via limited forays into the high street, both to gauge the impact of products on certain demographics and to build word of mouth interest.

Although flogging excess merchandise or trying out experiential marketing for a few weeks isn’t to be sniffed at, brands are achieving a longer-term impact by using pop-ups as data collection exercises. This can be as simple as asking customers for email addresses, to using mobile pop-up concepts (think temporary shops in buses) to decide on the location for a permanent bricks-and-mortar store. The likes of Cadbury’s have even experimented with online pop-up stores. In 2009, it allowed customers to get a free scarf by “finding” a virtual shop on fashion blogs and online retailers. While the digital pop-up trend is still developing (from interactive digital bill-boards, to online stores that are only accessible in certain locations at certain times), it’s another way to collect customer information while driving discussion.

Pop-ups are an obvious way for newer companies to piggyback on the credibility of established retailers. Selfridges, for example, is providing space for emerging fashion and lifestyle brands, and other retailers are also opening up their floorplans for temporary occupation.

But pop-ups could also be a chance to experiment with new collaborative possibilities with other startups, particularly where the trend is being broken down even further. OneDayShop in Amsterdam, for example, allows companies to rent single shelves for just a few days. You may well find a new supplier, a new business partner, or a new pivot for your company.

Tom Welsh is business features editor at City A.M. @TWWelsh