When 23-year-old David Burke wanted to sell his line of outdoorsy clothes, called Great Lakes Clothing, for the holidays, he chose Ridgedale Mall to set up a pop-up shop.
He and business partner Spencer Barrett, 24, believed their inspired-by-the-lake clothing line would appeal to people who shop near Lake Minnetonka. "This store is a test for us," he said. "A mall is not our ideal scene. We want a more boutique feel, but our revenue in November was double what we projected."
This is the first time that Burke and Barrett have tried their own store, even if it is temporary. They had a cabinlike structure built in Ridgedale's atrium that complements a brand meant to "bring you back to the good life sharing stories around the bonfire and jumping off a well-worn dock," according to the company's website.
Shoppers are used to seeing temporary kiosks and carts pop up at malls in November and December from brands like Hickory Farms, Go Calendars and Zubaz. But more retailers are using the holiday pop-up concept to test their brand in malls, a relationship that benefits both entrepreneurs and malls with empty storefronts.
"When people see Creative Kidstuff in the former Coldwater Creek space in Mall of America, they assume it's a permanent store, even when it's not," said Lisa Taylor, director of specialty leasing at Mall of America. But mall leasing agents aren't relaxing restrictions. "Our visual standards are very high," said Taylor. "Even temporary stores must work with our visual designer for sign development and store layout."
Years ago, malls wanted unleased spaces to remain empty because potential retailers preferred to see the space raw rather than occupied. That has changed, said Marshal Cohen, senior analyst at the NPD Group. "Now potential renters want to see it as a functioning retail space, like staging a home for sale," Cohen said.
It's a phenomenon that retail experts started noticing five years ago when swimwear shops, travel agencies and Halloween stores started popping up in malls during high season. "It's about having the right product at the right time," Cohen said. "More spaces have been coming up empty, which favors the pop-ups, at least until the economy gets better."
Vacancy rates in the country's malls have remained flat for a year at 7.9 percent, according to real estate research company Reis Inc., and pop-ups can minimize that.
The Mall of America added Uptown MN, Creative Kidstuff, Callister's Christmas, Fuego, Dance District and Ragstock's Holiday Sweater Store. Ridgedale brought in Christmas Corner, Teddy B's Popcorn, Uptown MN, Lazy One leisure wear and the Minnetonka Center for the Arts. Southdale has a Ragstock sweater store. Rosedale added Brookstone and Toys 'R' Us Express, while Twin Cities Premium Outlets in Eagan filled an empty space with a Mode designer outlet.
The short-timers want to do more than get holiday dollars. They test certain malls for a permanent location, increase their brand identity and analyze a store's strength in a different part of the metro area.
Heidi and Brett Behnken, who have permanent Lazy One retail stores in the Mall of America, Park Rapids and Nisswa, Minn., said that Ridgedale asked them to consider a kiosk for the holidays but that they wanted a full store to test their brand in the western suburbs. Natalie Bonifazi, Ridgedale's specialty leasing representative, offered a space near Santa Court. "Lazy One is a perfect store to put near Santa. It's got PJs and slippers for kids, moms and dads," Bonifazi said.
Ridgedale made a concerted effort to include as many local or regional pop-up concepts as possible this year. "It's important that locals get the recognition that they need and deserve. More people are shopping the centers during the holidays, and we want locals to embrace what their fellow neighbors are doing," Bonifazi said. She canvasses a wide variety of sources for pop-ups, including local neighborhoods, the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Facebook and Pinterest.
Malls want to rent as much empty space as they can, but they still have to strategize. Creative Kidstuff toy store landed on the first floor of the MOA by Legoland, the Disney Store and the Nickelodeon gift shop. "We were looking at how to expand our business," said Roberta Bonoff, CEO of Creative Kidstuff. "For a mall as big as Mall of America is, there isn't a specialty toy store there that sells a variety of toy products from different vendors."
Bonoff said the store is performing as planned and considering a longer stay.
Mall of America is filled with stores that have temporary or year-to-year leases, including the JM Cremp's boys adventure store; Farm Boy and Farm Girl; Vom Fass specialty foods, and Cowgirl Tuff. Carhartt, Ivivva children's yoga wear and Relaxadaisical started as temp stores, but have become permanent, said Taylor. "They test us as much as we test them," she said.
But being a temporary store has a downside. Entrepreneurs rarely know where they're going to be placed. The malls can move them if a long-term tenant wants the space. While most holiday stores are locked in for 60 days, each year brings a new map.
Theo Williams, owner of Teddy B's Popcorn in Ridgedale, knows that it's extremely unlikely he'll get the same spot next year. Being so close to where Nordstrom will open next fall, he figures a permanent store will take his place. But he doesn't mind.
"I opened the temporary store in Ridgedale because I wanted a trial run before deciding to open a permanent store in a strip mall in Bloomington," he said. Williams never thought a mall location was ideal for his business, even though Ridgedale has no other popcorn concepts competing with his. "Ours is a destination business. People don't want to have trouble parking just to buy a tin of popcorn," he said. He plans to open a store at 98th and Normandale next year.
Laurie Swiler, who has been in the pop-up business for 20 years with her Christmas Corner stores, said she operates on faith every year. "I buy all my goods in January when I have no idea what spaces I'll get come November," she said. Choosing the right location is important, because it's not worth the trouble in a bad one. It takes her a month to set up a store, which she starts looking for in March. For her effort, Swiler said she makes five figures each year, enough to pay her employees $10 to $15 an hour and a profit-sharing bonus at the end of the season.
Two years ago, Pady Regnier opened a store called Uptown MN in a former McDonald's at the airport. Now, she is using temporary spots at the Mall of America and Ridgedale to further test the popularity of the store's Minnesota artisan goods.
So far, the MOA store gets more shoppers, but the Ridgedale location is generating more buyers. Signing a longer-term lease is a possibility, Regnier said, but she's still determining how well the brand is accepted. She said she likes getting her feet wet in malls in a more affordable way — by not signing a 10-year lease.
"Pop-ups are like gypsies moving around. Maybe I'm becoming a permanent pop-up retailer," she said, laughing.