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An open letter to Mayor Menino on pop-up shops, mobile retail trucks, and the Oakland experiment

Posted by Scott Kirsner  May 29, 2012 11:37 AM

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Dear Mayor Menino:

I know you've been meeting with entrepreneurs who've created mobile retail trucks, to consider establishing new parking spots in Boston where they could legally sell their wares. I'm all for that. A few well-chosen spots around the city could help fledgling retail concepts gain momentum — and potentially move into permanent storefronts if they're successful enough — without aggravating merchants who pay rent.

But mobile retail won't work for every business, since you can't fit very much merchandise or very many shoppers into a rehabbed FedEx truck. Already, I know of at least one business, bGreen, that tried and failed to sell eco-friendly home products out of a truck. (The founders are now trying to get rid of the truck, and instead focus on their web site.)

There's another model worth considering that could have even more of a positive impact, for the city and for entrepreneurs: encouraging landlords to make vacant stores available to entrepreneurs who want to run pop-up shops. These businesses would help invigorate neighborhoods that have too many empty storefronts (think Downtown Crossing or Dudley Square), and they could help entrepreneurs test retail ideas with fewer up-front expenditures than outfitting a truck.

The city could dangle some incentives for landlords in specific neighborhoods to give this a whirl — perhaps a break on real estate taxes. Or it could just invest some time and resources in helping to promote the idea and the shops themselves. For landlords, there are several benefits: pop-up shops using a storefront for a few months may become successful enough to turn into permanent tenants, but even if they don't, they can help increase foot traffic to their location, making it more appealing to other prospective renters.

It's worth looking at Oakland's Popuphood as a model. A single landlord made storefronts available to five entrepreneurs, rent-free, for six months this year. The city contributed just $25,000 to the project, and agreed to help speed up the permitting process. One jewelry retailer said it cost her just $5,000 to get up and running in one of the storefronts.

I asked Sarah Filley, an artist who was a co-founder of Popuphood, to give me an update on the project. She told me that three of the businesses have signed long-term leases on their space. Two new businesses will move in in July "to replace the retailers that did not sign on," she wrote in an e-mail. In addition, "restaurants and bars in the neighborhood have reversed their layoffs of six months ago, and have hired new staff to keep up with the increase in foot traffic as a direct result of our project."

Boston has seen some recent experiments with pop-up shops, like the Harvard Business School students who set one up for a single weekend last last month on Newbury Street. But a city-supported program would spur even more retail innovation in Boston.

It certainly makes sense to designate some parking spots for entrepreneurs who want to give retail trucks a whirl. But pop-up shops could have an even bigger upside for neighborhoods, landlords, and entrepreneurs who want to test out a business idea — without buying a truck.

Here's a video about Oakland's Popuphood:

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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