The Insider's Guide To Getting Premium Pop-Up Shop Space For Free

Insider's guide to getting pop-up space free | Shopify Retail

Pop-up shops are a hot trend right now that businesses both big and small are jumping onto. However, one of the biggest obstacles that come up when doing one is the fact that pop-up shops require space, and space requires money, usually, a lot of it. But that's just to the untrained eye. In reality, there are five hard-and-fast secrets that will allow you to get real estate for cheap, or sometimes even free.

How can I guarantee success by following these tips?

Well, from 2011 and 2013, I ran pop-ups, media and partnerships at Openhouse. We started with one space and quickly expanded to three. So, I've seen the lay of land and obtained a solid understanding of what creates win-win situations for both the brand and the property owners. 

Now, whether you've only ever sold online, or are a seasoned pop-up shop veteran, using these rules every time you're looking to secure space can end up saving you a lot of money. This post will make securing a space the easiest part of your pop-up journey. It's a 5-step rulebook that I believe can be used in any city, for any pop-up project, at any time.

Ready to dive in? Let's get started. 

Secret 1: Learn the Lay of the Pop-Up Land and See Who's New

High demand for city retail drives up long-term lease prices, but the increasingly popular pop-up movement is driving short-term prices. Why? More awareness on the buyer side and more competition on the seller side. The more spaces you're aware of, the more comfortable you'll be initiating a conversation, establishing fair pricing and driving them down.

First, go to the Web. It'll be much easier than popping your head into empty spots with "For Rent" signs. The Web will show you the personalities, people and purpose behind each space. For example, Storefront curates 150 pop-up spaces in NYC, Made in the Lower East Side has relationships with landlords in the East Village and Lower East Side, Openhouse Gallery has three spaces in Soho's Nolita neighborhood, and Specials on C is a brand new space in Alphabet City while RePopRoom is holding down Chelsea.

Explore the news, too. Every city in the US is embracing pop-ups - from Detroit to Seattle. Seek and ye shall find options. Especially useful knowledge is seeing who just opened a pop-up space. They won't be booked and will welcome your business, and marketing efforts.

Secret 2: Treat the Space Owner Like a Friend

Research is the easy part, right? Now that you've pinned down a few options, and considered the ten important factors for your perfect space, it's time to set up a meeting. Owners of pop-up spaces are not like typical landlords. They love creativity, people, interesting projects and the attention of new inquiries. They're really smart folks who prefer an open door to a long-term lease.

But, they also don't want to deal with any sort of headache. Love them, and think about what makes them happy. Complete and predictable order makes them happy. Listening to you tell them how much you care about their space and about its safety makes them happy. Telling them that you're just going to have a cool event with great people doesn't move the needle at all.

To bring the price down, you need to make the owner feel comfortable that she is going to have zero headache dealing with your project. Go beyond the logistical guarantee by making her feel like she's part of your team. Invite them to your opening, let them bring friends. Afterward, leave a few bottles of wine, sponsored swag, a thank-you card and make sure to send out social media love too. 

Secret 3: Crystallize and Explain Your Value Outside of Money

As I mentioned above, when I was working at Openhouse and in charge of our three spaces, our business model was three-fold:

  1. Secure high-paying corporate clients who want to get creative in empty space.
  2. Fill empty days with sample sales and take a cut of the revenue.
  3. Create original projects that build local audiences, social media fans, press, new business contacts and brand awareness.

Now, If you're trying to secure a space discount, you have to put yourself in in the third category, namely, creating value that will create a ripple effect long after your pop-up gets over with. 

One way to start getting yourself in the mind-frame for thinking about what the property owner needs and wants is to start thinking about how every day, rain or shine, she has to pay bills - lease, taxes, cleaning, maintenance, phone, Internet, electricity, toilet paper, paper towels, staffing, health care, paid vacation, space improvements, trash removal. And that's just for her commercial real estate! Add all her daily and family bills, and you'll realize that when it comes to running a space, giving deals is nowhere on the priority list.

Simply put, "gifting" the space without a clear value proposition is simply throwing money down a hole. Here's the wonderful part: Marketing, press, quality guest lists, photos, videos, testimonials and good will are all on a business owners' priority list. If you're launching a pop-up, you will be filling all these priorities (except maybe video - how do you get a good deal on that?!) for the owner. Explain how you'll produce, and what you'll produce, and you'll find a space owner who doesn't see you as a hole but as a hole filler. 

For example, to illustrate what I mean, I like to list out all the journalists, entrepreneurs, and other high-profile individuals who come out to my pop-ups for the space owners. You want to make sure you keep track of and really amplify the impact your event is having based on the exposure you're delivering. 

High-profile pop-up shop visitors | Shopify Retail

(Rain or shine, space owners are racking up bills. To secure a discount or gifted space, establish your value as free marketing, PR or audience development for the space.)

Here's an example: Since January, Imagination in Space and My Good Dog has been hosting A Cocktail on a Monday at interesting NYC and Brooklyn spaces. We invite NYC journalists and creative entrepreneurs to come chill, enjoy good chat, meet new people and drink prosecco.

It's not a networking event - it's a house party for adults; a cocktail party from 6-9:30pm. I typically secure the space a week in advance and haven't had to pay for a space. Instead of paying, I offer a trade. In exchange for an evening at the space, I write to the space owners that I'll do this:

  1. One-to-one email invites to more than 200 journalists and entrepreneurs where I mention (your space) + link to your space. 
  2. A cocktail party at (your space) with all the journalists and entrepreneurs who can make it for some good old-fashioned experiential marketing. 
  3. All drink and food for the party.
  4. Full management of said party along with My Good Dog PR. 
  5. Professional photography of A Cocktail on a Monday, which you will be able to have and use for any internal and external purposes.
  6. A blog post about the event on Imagination in Space and a blog post that's ghostwritten and uploaded to your site by Imagination in Space/My Good Dog and posted within 48 hours of the event. 
  7. The blog post will provide social media content for Your Space's FB, Instagram and anywhere else you want.
  8. Group email thanking everyone for coming, including a link to your site and to the blog post with pictures on it. 
  9. The email addresses of everyone who came to the cocktail party so that you can use them for outreach, mailing list, invites or anything else your heart desires.  

I've fully explained what we'll provide, put it on paper, gave my word about the logistics and offered valuable services to the owner. If you know enough about the lay of the land, are aware of new or interesting spaces and treat owners like people and not gatekeepers, you can do the same and get the same results. 

Secret 4: Pop-Up on a Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, August or January

Run pop-up shop when competitors are sleeping | Shopify Retail

(Pop-up when your commercial and non-commercial competition is sleeping, and you'll secure a friendly deal. Photo credit: Strange World News)

Popping up on an "off" day or month is crucial to securing a discounted or gifted space. If you've established your value, you've got an owner's attention. But now you're entering into a competition with all other suitors in the commercial and non-commercial world. Let's start with the commercial world: Think about where the big money is spent in entertainment, media, events: On a month-to-month basis, it's May/June (the city exits Winter hibernation), September/October (back to school, back from vacation, fall fashion), December (holidays!).

On a day-to-day basis, its Thursday, Friday, Saturday. An owner won't give you space on a competitive day because she'd rather hold out for a full-paying client. Simple as that. But if you take a "weak" day, you're able to secure the day further in advance and help out your teammate (the owner) by filling the weak day with strong content. Those are two big wins. The third win is that your pop-up doesn't have as much competition in the battle for potential guest's time. That's why we throw A Cocktail on a Monday. On the weekend, people already have plenty to do.

Secret 5: Only Look at Gentrifying Areas and New Spaces

Pick gentrifying neighborhoods for pop-up shops | Shopify Retail

(Cities already do most of the work for you in securing the deal. Isolate gentrifying neighborhoods before they become gentrified. Illustration credit: New York Daily News)

Accessible pop-up spaces exist almost exclusively outside of the commercial mainstream (mainstream like Fifth Avenue or Soho in New York City, Beverly Hills in LA, Union Square in San Fran, Yorkville in Toronto). Ignore the established neighborhoods and focus on gentrifying neighborhoods. These exist on the well-trafficked, young, hip, up-and-coming fringes of the commercial mainstream. Gentrifying neighborhoods are where trends are set - East Village, Lower East Side, Nolita - and where rent is cheaper. That means innovative space owners willing to barter for marketing and press and interesting neighbourhoods for guests and customers to visit. 

There you have it, my five secrets to helping you secure pop-up shop spaces for cheap, or better yet free. Now that you know them, go out and put them to the test. If you have any other tips you'd like to share about researching, negotiating, and closing on pop-up spaces, be sure to let us know by commenting below.

shopify-author Greg Spielberg

About The Author

Greg Spielberg is the founder of Imagination in Space, a journalism company that creates pop-ups with beautiful contemporaries instead of writing about them. Connect with him on Twitter.