Sleeping on cots or an airbed on the floor of a temporary storefront is all in a day’s work for Ken Jones Jr. and Ron Morris, owners of Mercantile Home in Easton Pa.
Since March, they’ve been setting up weeklong pop-up shops in vacant storefronts around the state—occasionally resorting to “urban camping”—at the invitation of downtown revitalization programs, which hope the entrepreneurs’ presence will boost local economic development.
“We never know how big the space is going to be, whether the lights are working,” said Jones, who sells an eclectic mix of clothing, aromatherapy products, figurines, jewelry, note paper and other items he and Morris make. “We come in on Sunday, set up and open for business on Monday. … It’s been a joyous thing. We show up as total outsiders. By the end of the week, we’re telling one neighbor about another neighbor’s sick cat. We become a member of the community.”
The Pennsylvania Downtown Center in Harrisburg first contacted Jones and Morris about two years ago to see if they were interested in partnering with local branches of Main Street America, a network of older and historic commercial districts committed to boosting economic development. So the duo took part in art projects, classes and concerts. Then the center came up with the traveling concept, which Jones dubbed “mobile Mercantile.”
“We work with local Main Street managers in smaller communities trying to light the fires of revitalization with empty storefronts,” he said.
Jeanne Ketcham, program coordinator for the Lansdowne Economic Development Corp., said Mercantile Home’s most recent pop-up in a vacant storefront on Baltimore Avenue in the community 13 miles from Philadelphia was a hands-down success.
The building is an old furniture store that had been vacant for about seven years. Before that it housed a store where consumers could pay their utility bills and then go upstairs to buy washing machines and dryers.
Between July 31 and Aug. 5, hundreds of people passed through the building, which eventually will house a “maker space” for creative endeavors, a small retail area and co-working spaces once it opens next spring.
Jones and Morris “really showcased what the space could be,” Ketcham said. “They can just make a really empty space look alive and come alive. They were great.”
Pop-ups are a great way to inject excitement into an existing space, according to Joseph Cordiano, CEO of Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, which owns and operates more than 22.5 million square feet of retail space, including Fashion District Philadelphia and Cherry Hill Mall in Cherry Hill, N.J.
“Since they only maintain a presence for a short period, consumers that want to visit the location must do so during that limited time—driving further traffic and fueling sales at the mall,” Cordiano said. “The space a pop-up fills really depends on the retailer and the amount of infrastructure and selling space they need. Often, larger seasonal pop-ups are pushing a lot of inventory in a short time frame, so store space is likely better suited to them.”
Jones and Morris, who are married and have been together 15 years, have set up eight pop-ups so far this year and are in the midst of planning their ninth. They hope to take the concept across state lines after the first of the year.
Set-up costs are minimal, involving only advertising and transportation, since they pay no rent for the storefronts, some of which have been vacant for a decade. Though they bring some merchandise with them, they also make products on site. Jones travels with his sewing machine and spinning wheel as well as metalworking supplies.
Generally, business starts off slowly, with those to whom the pair already has reached out, like neighboring business owners and the movers and shakers in town. Then the curious begin showing up and pretty soon, word of mouth starts generating traffic.
“We’re very creative and we are best when resources are limited—supplies, time or money. We solve things the creative way,” Jones said.
Take, for example, their initial pop-up shop in Harrisburg.
“We arrived in Harrisburg on Sunday and on Monday morning a blizzard showed up. We got 2 feet of snow. It was just Ron and me in an unheated bank,” Jones said, adding the pair had slept in the abandoned bank vault. “We did some amazing things. Once everybody came out of their homes, we were like ‘Brigadoon.’ Fantasy had appeared in the middle of the store. I cut out letters from colored paper and put them up in the windows. We made yellow polka dots on the snow.”
Jones said the pop-up has a huge advantage over a more traditional store opening: Because of the short duration, there’s an urgency about getting in to see what it’s all about. But, he said, there’s something else that makes Mercantile Home unique.
“It’s not solely about us selling things. Community comes first and commerce comes second. By the end of the week, we know people. Sisters are bringing their moms by,” Jones said.
“For us [the pop-ups] are just a way … of going out and doing God’s work,” he continued, noting that he and Morris were both raised as evangelical Christians. “Someone comes in and needs someone to listen for 20 minutes. We’re a captive audience. We’re outsiders, a safe space. They walk out with a candle and a lighter burden.”