Here’s the safest bet you could make about 2019: We’re likely to see more brick-and-mortar retailers go belly-up, and a growing number of empty storefronts on our main streets, not to mention in malls.
So the smartest thing local officials in Massachusetts could do is to look at every empty retail space as a potential incubator for the next wave of entrepreneurs. Work with landlords and real estate brokers to fill them with pop-ups, experimental businesses with short-term leases. It’s not simple, but it’s better than crossing your fingers and hoping for yet another bank branch, mobile phone store, or coffee chain to move in.
On Christmas Eve, I dropped by Hourglass Boston, a pop-up boutique a few blocks from Fenway Park run by Nicole Fichera, a former architect, and Erin Robertson, a fashion designer who won the reality show “Project Runway” a few seasons back. It was the end of a four-month run on Boylston Street, and there was still a steady stream of shoppers perusing Robertson’s line of apparel, along with throw pillows, coasters, and laser-cut acrylic earrings. The whole store was bursting with color, and it was curated with a focus on female artists and entrepreneurs.
“This is not easy,” Fichera said. “You need to understand how real estate and space works, and you definitely need connections.”
She and Robertson had initially pitched their idea to a Brookline real estate firm, Isenberg Projects, which put them in touch with Samuels & Associates, the development company that has built many projects in the Fenway. That got them access to space in a Samuels building. A sponsorship arrangement with Allmodern, a home furnishings website owned by Boston-based Wayfair, helped Fichera and Robertson get free furniture and wallpaper to decorate it.
So how might we lower the threshold to more businesses like Hourglass, in more places around Massachusetts? I asked real estate brokers, entrepreneurs, attorneys, and economic development officials for their ideas. After listening to a lot of grousing about how hard it is to persuade landlords to take on unproven, short-term tenants who often want a break on the rent, six ideas floated to the top.
Write the playbook
Fichera says every entrepreneur who wants to try out a new concept in a pop-up essentially has to learn the process from scratch. Assembling a playbook of the key steps — from creating a marketing plan to getting insurance to choosing a point-of-sale system — would be a big help, she says. A business group like the Retailers Association of Massachusetts could convene retailers who’ve gone from pop-up to permanency — such as Ministry of Supply, the men’s apparel merchant on Newbury Street — to gather their advice and distill it into a short document.
Build the database
Chambers of commerce, city agencies, or groups such as the Commercial Brokers Association might create an online database of landlords open to hosting pop-ups. Wil Catlin, managing director at Boston Realty Advisors, says finding pop-up space is very much a word-of-mouth process: Call a lot of brokers and landlords, and you might luck out. But, Catlin says, “If you reached out to landlords and said, ‘Would you be interested in entertaining a pop-up store in the future?’ I bet the majority would say yes.”
Cities and towns could consider partial tax abatements for landlords who host short-term tenants, as an alternative to having the space sit vacant. Jen Faigel, executive director of Commonwealth Kitchen, a nonprofit that supports food industry entrepreneurs, suggests tax abatements could be tied to physical improvements so a temporary tenant could just move in without needing to upgrade. “Give landlords a cash incentive to want to invest in making a space ready for a tenant,” Faigel says.
Making it hard to get a certificate of occupancy for an unused space is one way to ensure that it stays empty. Yet that’s the case in many cities and towns, says Mimi Graney, downtown coordinator for Chelsea and the founder of Somerville’s Union Square Main Streets organization. And, Graney adds, “Cities should stop getting hung up on zoning that requires a ‘change in use.’ For example, some communities require a formal process for changes in use from, say, a shoe store to a bookstore.”
Banks and insurance brokerages often want to show they support entrepreneurship. They could choose one pop-up entrepreneur a year and offer to cover some of the costs of furnishing a space, marketing the pop-up, or insuring the whole endeavor.
Rev the promotions
Rather than expecting every pop-up to independently build its own customer base, what if there were one account on social media that promoted all pop-ups in a region, such as in MetroWest or on Cape Cod? That would be the perfect project for a civic-minded marketing or public relations agency. That way, consumers interested in checking out the newest retail experiments wouldn’t have to sleuth them out or stumble across them.
Last year, Arlington enacted a $400 annual penalty for landlords whose storefronts sit vacant. Boston City Councilor Matt O’Malley floated a similar concept in 2018. Some new kinds of carrots — or sticks — may be necessary to nudge landlords to consider taking on shorter-term, higher-risk tenants, but just layering on a new penalty probably isn’t the solution. We need lots of creative ideas about how to make the process of setting up a pop-up simpler for entrepreneurs of all kinds, and more palatable for landlords.
Two Bostonians with an interest in creating more support for retail entrepreneurs, Emily Isenberg and Jonathan Berk, are planning what Isenberg calls “Massachusetts’ first vacant retail conference” in the spring to address “new models to support neighborhood entrepreneurship, alleviate blight, and fill vacant commercial spaces.”
Sounds like the right conference, at exactly the right time.