For Alex Hely-Hutchinson, launching her porridge cafe 26 Grains was the culmination of years of obsessing about an idea she’d had while living in Copenhagen, where it’s a popular takeaway food. But she didn’t know if anyone else would love it as much as she did until she organised a pop-up shop in Old Street station with Appear Here.
“I talked about this idea all the time but didn’t really know what my route to market would be,” she says. “Even though starting a porridge stall in an underground station in July wasn’t the best idea, it went really well. Being able to have a shopfront, actually speaking to your customers from the very beginning … it was a great opportunity.”
The Old Street station pop-up was followed by another, and another. After a year doing events in London, Hely-Hutchinson was able to put a compelling business case together for a landlord. She opened a permanent store in Covent Garden in June 2015.
Appear Here was founded by Ross Bailey in 2013 with a couple of friends. Billed as an “Airbnb for retail”, Bailey had the idea after convincing a landlord to let him borrow a shop for a week in 2012 to sell Olympics and Diamond Jubilee merchandise. Other retailers asked him to help organise their pop-ups and he realised the system wasn’t set up to facilitate the growing trend of temporary retail.
“Everyone was talking about how the high street is dying and vacancy rates are at their highest point. I thought why can’t we take the latent capacity of all these empty shops and try and make it a little more flexible, giving more people access to the high street,” he says, adding that there were challenges in realising this vision. “None of us had run a company before.
“It was horribly difficult [to get landlords to give this a try]. Most people said it would never work, that we had to work through agents or they wouldn’t do it. Gradually they came around.”
A report compiled by PwC and the Local Data Company found there were 15 shops closing every day in the UK in the first half of 2016. This year is showing some signs of an uplift – the British Independent Retailers Association found four new independent shops per day opened in the first three months of 2017. But recent news that one in four retailers on Bond Street are thinking of moving out, highlights the difficulty many retailers are having.
By comparison, the pop-up sector is booming. It’s estimated to be worth £2.3bn, with 44% of consumers saying they’ve visited a pop-up space in the past 12 months. Appear Here launched 4,000 stores in London last year and has recently opened offices in New York and Paris. Their users are split between “thousands of landlords” and 80,000 entrepreneurs who use (or have used) the site to find a space. Investors have been interested too (albeit after a period of initial reluctance) – the business is about to close a $12m (£9m) funding round, which follows an earlier $10m (£7m) investment.
Top of the agenda for Appear Here was simplifying the whole process for both parties, Bailey says. That included minimising legal jargon, having a simple two-page agreement, and making all charges transparent. As a result, it takes much less time to organise a space.
“Traditionally when you try and get a store, it takes three to six months to do a deal. On Appear Here, it takes three to six days. Our vision is to build a global marketplace where anyone with an idea can find space to bring it to life.”
One such business owner is Preecha Patikit, who sells personalised handmade jewellery through his company, Littlesmith. He had a market stall in Spitalfields market but had contacted Topshop to see if there was an opportunity to collaborate so he could reach a high street audience. He got no response.
“For a small business to approach a big retailer, it’s very difficult,” Patikit says. “But Appear Here had Topshop on their list, so I applied and was accepted. We were in the Oxford Street store for five weeks.”
His revenue increased dramatically from £875 a day, to £8,500 in the first week. He now has a permanent space in Topshop and Selfridges, and is discussing opportunities with John Lewis and retailers abroad. Patikit hopes they can open their own standalone shop later this year. He believes working with Appear Here has helped the business grow much more rapidly than expected.
What’s perhaps surprising is that someone relatively inexperienced in retail has succeeded in reimagining the sector. But Bailey believes his naivety has been a strength.
“When you’re naive, sometimes you look at things and think why is it that complex? Why do we need this many documents? Why are they using big words I don’t really understand?” he says. “Not only are you giving entrepreneurs access, not only are you opening up an old school industry, you’re actually bringing the real estate sector forward. You’re democratising something that was previously hard to access.”
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