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Spring 2014
Revitalizing Retail

San Antonio pop-up program gives entrepreneurs a boost—and some choose to stay.

Part-time holiday pop-ups are extending their run in the City of San Antonio, TX. The city’s Center City Development Office launched an initiative last December to bring in temporary holiday tenants to fill some of the vacant space on Houston Street. Pop-up tenants sold everything from art and jewelry to pet treats and opened for business the three weeks prior to Christmas. The program was so successful that two of the retailers, Canvas and Joyarte Jewelry Couture, remained open through January and February.

One of the unique aspects of this program is that the city ended up pairing some businesses together to make the most of its available space. “We had more applicants than we had available space,” says Colleen Swain, assistant director in the Center City Development Office. Initially, the program received 16 applicants for the four available spaces. Some of the businesses agreed to either share space or split the opening days and times in order to allow them to operate in the same location.

Two businesses, Vinuously Speaking, a wine bar, and Fresh Urban Flowers, worked together to create Canvas—a pop-up wine gallery and art bar, which remained open through the end of February. In addition, the businesses are exploring the possibility of entering into a long-term lease with the property owner, adds Swain.

How it worked

PopUp9-copyThe Houston Street pop-up initiative provided the opportunity for entrepreneurs to do a trial run in a brick-and-mortar store without a lot of risk. One of the vendors was PAWSitively Sweet Bakery, which features dog treats and accessories. The owner is a college student that started the business when she was in high school, selling her products mainly at local farmer’s markets. “So, this was an opportunity for her to test what it would be like to have a small shop,” says Swain. Other pop-ups specialized in women’s clothing and accessories, books, hand-crafted jewelry, art and furniture.

“We wanted to create an environment that engaged customers and appealed to locals,” says Swain. The initiative specifically included Tuesday opening times to coincide with the city’s existing Downtown Tuesday promotion that offers free parking in city facilities after 5 p.m. The shops were open from Dec. 3 through Dec. 21 with the pop-ups agreeing to be open every Tuesday from 4-9 p.m. and Saturday from noon to 9 p.m.

Another goal was to activate underutilized and vacant properties on Houston Street, which is a main thoroughfare in Downtown San Antonio. The city worked with the property owners, Federal Realty Investment Trust of Rockville, MD, and Service  Lloyds Insurance Co. of Austin, to provide free rent to the tenants for existing empty spaces. Vendors had to sign a license agreement and agree to provide their own insurance.

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Although the area used to be a stronger retail hub, about 25 percent of the retail space is currently vacant. “Many of these locations are, unfortunately, in a state where if someone were to come in and try to open a shop, it would cost them a lot more money than a shopping center,” says Swain. So, this was an opportunity to give entrepreneurs a taste for what running that type of business would involve and whether it would be feasible. It also helped the property owners to see that if they worked with someone and gave them a chance, that there might be the potential to gain a long-term tenant, she says.

One of the lessons the city learned with its pop-up initiative is how important it is for the pop-up shops to utilize social media in marketing themselves. The city did some promotion and marketing for the pop-ups. However, those retailers that went the extra step to use social media in their own marketing and promotions rather than relying on foot traffic to bring people downtown did “extraordinarily well,” adds Swain.

Beth Mattson-Teig

Beth Mattson-Teig is a freelance business writer based in Minneapolis, Minn. She specializes in covering the national commercial real estate industry.
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