NASHVILLE — Bill Caywood is chatting with some customers when one remembers that it’s time to feed the parking meter. So Caywood reaches under the counter and hands him a fistful of quarters.
If giving money away sounds like a curious way to run a business, Caywood could be forgiven. He’s an artist first. Running a store is new to him.
Known for his popular “Nashville Looks Good on You” murals all over town, Caywood said his fans suggested he sell Nashville-themed merchandise. “I wasn’t setting out to be in retail. People started asking, ‘Oh, do you have mugs? Oh, do you have hats?’”
So now he’s opened nashᵀᴺ, a few blocks from the tumult of noisy Broadway and between the Frist Museum of Art and the hipster neighborhood called the Gulch, in a vacant space in the same building as the Gibson Guitar flagship store and museum.
It’s part of a surge of pop-up shops in trendy destinations, filling empty storefronts left behind by the retail carnage of the pandemic and offering unique goods far more interesting than what’s available in kitschy tourist outlets, often created by local artists and entrepreneurs.
A bearded graphic designer manning the register in a black knit cap with the nashᵀᴺ logo, Caywood is surrounded by neat stacks of branded coffee mugs, drink cozies, T-shirts, sweat shirts, and tumblers, many produced by local printers and embroiderers; even the screen-printed shopping bags make good souvenirs.
It’s a comparatively easy way to have a retail presence where people can see, touch, and feel these things, said Caywood, who also offers his merchandise online. After all, he said, “It’s a weird time to be taking out loans for a brick-and-mortar store.”
That’s one of the things that’s driving the pop-up craze. So is encouragement from tourist boards and civic leaders anxious to fill the gaps in streetscapes where permanent retail businesses have closed.
“Pretty much every city has called,” said “vacancy management expert” Andrew Martineau, who helps them fill those gaps with pop-up shops.
Even in Nashville, where the number of visitors is already exceeding pre-pandemic levels, dark windows overlook stretches of sidewalk. The iconic Ernest Tubb Record Shop was the latest to announce that it will close.
“A closed storefront sends a signal of a lagging economy or that this is not a vibrant place,” said Lauren Skinner Beitelspacher, an associate professor of marketing at Babson College and an expert in retail and entrepreneurship.
Some 12,200 retail stores were shuttered in 2020 alone, according to the commercial real estate firm CoStar, leaving behind a record 149 million square feet of vacant space. Another 40,000 to 50,000 are projected by UBS to shut down within the next five years. In some cities, the results are easy to see; retail vacancy rates in some parts of Manhattan have reached as high as 30 percent, the Real Estate Board of New York says.
And “if there are dark spaces,” Martineau said, “people turn around.”
But keeping the lights on isn’t the only thing driving the rush to pop-ups.
Many people during the pandemic resolved to indulge their inner creativity, often by making things to sell; doing it in a pop-up space can minimize their risk.
“COVID has certainly forced a lot of people to make the side hustle into the premier hustle,” said Martineau, a former shopping center marketing director and now cofounder and managing partner of Zero Empty Spaces, which connects artists with empty storefronts they can rent. “By the spaces being filled with local creators, you’re providing opportunities for people to come in and support that business.”
The average cost to open a pop-up is $2,000, versus $98,000 for a permanent brick-and-mortar store, and takes 12 days rather than two months, according to the consulting firm Storefront, which also helps people find and rent space. And the payoff per square foot is nearly four times higher, or $1,230 versus $341.
Even large existing retailers are resorting to pop-ups as a low-risk way to test new markets “and show people what the experience is,” said Libby Callaway, principal and CEO of the communications firm The Callaway, which helps big companies do this.
Callaway, too, is based in Nashville, which has attracted pop-ups by Hermes, Goop, and others.
This also accelerated during the pandemic, when brands were desperate to stay connected with their customers, who often moved away to work remotely. Some New York stores “followed people to the Hamptons,” for example, said Melissa Gonzalez, CEO and founder of The Lion’esque Group and author of “The Pop-up Paradigm: How Brands Build Human Connection in a Digital Age.”
That’s continued with new traveling pop-ups that move to tourist destinations during their high seasons, such as the Poppy Caravan, a fashion and design pop-up that goes to Nantucket in the summer, Palm Beach, Fla., in the winter, and other points between.
Pop-ups also respond to the changed mind-set of consumers who are tired of the limitations of online shopping and the monotonous inventories of big chains.
“These experiences offer something different than the mall or the big box store,” Callaway said.
They’re especially popular with coveted young consumers. The highest awareness of pop-ups is among people ages 18 to 25, the consulting company Vend has found.
“Consumers are still interested in that touch-and-feel aspect of shopping, and the things you can get in these pop-ups you can’t always find online,” said Martineau.
Where once people engaged in showrooming — checking out an item in a brick-and-mortar store, then buying it online — now the opposite is happening, said Carina Donoso, senior director of retail experience and incubation at Boston-based WS Development, one of many real estate owners welcoming pop-up shops.
“There’s a huge trend of being able to explore products online and buy them in person,” said Donoso — and of just enjoying “the unexpected surprises and delights that people are excited to see.”
It’s that uniqueness that makes pop-ups particularly appealing to travelers.
“When you go away, you want to get something that feels authentic and unique,” Gonzalez said. “People when they travel like to think that they discovered something no one else has discovered before,” added Babson’s Beitelspacher. “Nobody wants to say, ‘I got it at the tourist shop.’” Now the travel industry is getting into the game. Pop-ups are popping up at festivals and in airports, which also lost retail tenants during COVID. Some hotels are hosting pop-ups, too. Cliff House Maine holds “Makers Markets” with pop-ups by local businesses selling everything from chocolates to candles.
Destinations are even setting up pop-ups to promote themselves. The South Dakota Department of Tourism opened a pop-up in a high-end shopping mall in Dallas, Visit Texas created a pop-up in Santa Monica, Calif., and Visit California ran a pop-up on Fifth Avenue in New York, with a California redwood treehouse, surfboards, California rolls, and guacamole snacks. Callaway took a Nashville-themed pop-up called Greetings from Nashville to New York and Charleston, S.C.
Bill Caywood said that what he most likes about his pop-up shop is meeting the people — Nashville visitors and locals — who like his work.
“It’s not about the apparel or even selling stuff. It’s about fully engaging the community,” he said. “That’s what makes a city cool, is the people.”
Jon Marcus can be reached at email@example.com.