‘Airbnb of pop-ups’ unveils new experience-driven retail store in Toronto

‘Airbnb of pop-ups’ unveils new experience-driven retail store in Toronto
It wasn’t until he tried to find a spot to sell his homemade hummus that the idea popped into Yashar Nejati’s head.

“In 2013, I needed a temporary space for a café as a marketing campaign for my first business, Yummus (homemade hummus), but I couldn’t find a landlord willing to give me anything less than a one-year lease,” he recalls.

Though ubiquitous today, the guerrilla retail concept of pop-up shops hadn’t quite hit the mainstream in Canada yet. So out of frustration, he took that one-year lease on a 600-square-foot retail storefront in Vancouver’s Chinatown — and wound up starting a whole new business.

That storefront became the launching pad for thisopenspace, an online, short-term rental marketplace that matches brands with all manner of retail spaces in Toronto, Vancouver and New York City.

Nejati describes his startup as “the Airbnb of pop-ups,” since the site also welcomes property owners and brokers to list their spaces — from lofts and urban warehouses to traditional retail-ready stores — for various purposes, including photo shoots, off-site business meetings and pop-up shops to showcase goods. (Spaces can be booked by the hour, day or month.)

The site can also track the most coveted spots in the city at any given time among entrepreneurs eager to branch out and test their products in the marketplace beyond online retailing — with trendy and offbeat Queen St. W. by far the most popular to date.

“It takes months to get your brand into Hudson’s Bay or high-end boutiques. And just look at all the boarded up, empty retail spaces on Queen West. It’s because the rents are way too high for small businesses to open their own stores,” he notes.

“But any brand can apply to sell with us and (if you’re legit) you can start selling in retail in five days,” says Nejati.

Pop-ups are hardly new. In fact they’re all grown up now, and have transformed into more sophisticated concepts that are changing the face of retail, says industry strategist David Ian Gray of DIG360.

“Brands are more and more focused on direct relationships with customers, bypassing (traditional) retail,” says Gray.

“The limiting factor for brands and retailers in the past was accessing pop-up locations. Now landlords are getting on board developing opportunities for pop-ups,” he says.

Small brand pop-ups are now embraced by large retailers from Nike to Louis Vuitton. Department stores such as Nordstrom play host to temporary “pop-ins” for product lines like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop beauty collection, and shopping malls, including the Dixie Outlet Mall, have set aside store space dedicated to rotating pop-ups.

Each retailer pays a monthly fee from $500 to $5,000, depending on the size and placement of the product, and thisopenspace takes care of the rest. The companies get 100 per cent of the sales, with an estimated return on investment of 200 to 400 per cent.

“While more Canadians than ever are comfortable shopping for a mattress online, not everyone is ready to go digital with their mattress shopping, so Endy takes advantage of pop-up opportunities to connect with customers in real life,” says Aashish Nathwani, director of marketing for Endy, which has a bed and pillows on display at the Sleepover store.

“Partnering with thisopenspace allows us to expand our reach without the heavy investment that comes with running a retail store . . . and allows us to build meaningful relationships with customers in a new environment,” he says.

“Snoring is a very crowded market, and our product is not an impulse buy,” says Behrouz Hariri, CEO of Sleep Nora, a non-invasive snoring solution that fits under your pillow.

Fashion designer Mary Young, whose ethically made lingerie and loungewear is featured in the dreamy concept pop-up, says it only took two to three days to sell as much in the Sleepover store as she would online in a month.

“There are all these amazing entrepreneurs, but very few of them can afford bricks and mortar,” says Nejati, whose company is the largest of its kind in Canada with at least one competitor called Pop-up go.

Shopify is one of thisopenspace’s partners, he says, and has helped to find the right online retailers to work with. Over the last six months, the number of brands booking on thisopenspace has grown 30 per cent each month, he adds.

The site offers $2,000,000 in liability coverage for bookings and free professional photography of products in the spaces booked.

“We’re actually bullish on physical retail because you can only sell so much online. We think this is the future of retail,” he says.

Toronto retail consultant Wendy Evans agrees.

“The retail space is morphing from larger spaces to smaller ones at a better price. It’s an opportunity for newcomers to increase the credibility of their brand,” she says.
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