Pop Up Shops Generate Holiday Excitement

Most folks associate short-term pop-up shops, like those temporary Halloween or Christmas stores, with shopping malls, not historic downtowns. But the Main Street program in Cambridge, a city of 10,000 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, set out recently to see whether a variation on the pop-up concept might generate some holiday excitement and perhaps help reduce vacancies.

Conceived by Cambridge Main Street Board President Phil Feldman, the Holiday Pop Up Project (H-PUP) sounds a bit like a reality TV show, and it is — only without the cameras. Feldman proposed running a contest in which would-be entrepreneurs would apply for the chance to test out a retail business concept rent-free during the holiday season of November and December.

Program Manager Jim Duffy admits that he had doubts about the project at first. The time frame to put such a contest together seemed short. Would a property owner really play along? What if no good applications came in — or worse yet, no applications at all?

Feldman focused on the upside. Every phone call that came in would be from a prospective business owner who the organization could work with going forward, whether that caller decided to enter the contest or not. Adding two new stores in a block struggling with long-term vacancies could add excitement and foot traffic during the holiday season. If the contest won some media attention, H-PUP might help brand downtown Cambridge in its region as the place that goes the extra mile to help would-be entrepreneurs.

On September 30, property owner Bill Harrington agreed to enter two of his storefronts in the contest, and press releases announcing H-PUP went out the next day.

One of two winners of Cambridge's Holiday Pop Up Project, Colin Edgell, owner of Whitecap Outdoor Consignments, offers outdoors and sports merchandise. 

The first call Duffy fielded was from a television reporter asking if she could visit Cambridge the next morning.

Overall, the contest drew 15 expressions of interest and six formal applications. The two winners were announced in late October.

At Whitecap Outdoor Consignments, entrepreneur Colin Edgell will offer consignment merchandise in the outdoors and sports category — hunting gear, team sports equipment, sailing/boat supplies, clothing, and other products.

“In a retail environment where dollar stores and high-quality consignment shops have done reasonably well, all things considered, we found this concept really appealing,” Duffy says. “Needless to say, hunting and boating are huge here in Chesapeake country, and no one around here is doing anything like this.”

The other pop-up shop winner, Dennis Napolitan, owner of Malina Custom Leather, is selling high-quality leather goods and antiques in an artisan's workshop atmosphere.

The other winner, Malina Custom Leather, will offer retail sales in the atmosphere of an artisan’s workshop. The focus will be on high-quality leather products — everything from purses to portfolio covers and belts to briefcases. The inventory will be created on site by Dennis Napolitan, a craftsman who was a partner in the chain of D’Naz Leather shops that once operated in New York City. Carefully selected antiques will round out Malina’s inventory.

“Both winners have their eye on moving forward with their businesses after the holiday season, and both seem really excited about the opportunity to do this test run in the holiday season,” Duffy says.

An unexpected surprise popped up just as the winners were being announced. Operating independently of the contest, a business owner on the same block as the H-PUP stores offered the rear section of her corner building (and a separate entrance) to another entrepreneur. So a third pop-up store, Pear Tree South, will be offering bath and beauty supplies, holiday gift items, jewelry, greeting cards, and more.

So far, H-PUP has exceeded expectations, Duffy says, and Cambridge Main Street will definitely look to repeat the contest in the future. The next time around, however, Main Street’s organizers will be looking to launch the contest at least a month earlier and to work harder to make sure it will be simple and seamless for winners to get in their stores and ready to roll.

“I’d also like to look at offering a longer test period than two months,” says Duffy. “Giving away at least three months and possibly more might generate even more interest and additional applications. But overall, we’re very pleased with how things went here on the first time around.”