We tried something new in the lead up to Christmas, a pop-up shop at our nearest major town, Tamworth, in northern inland New South Wales. Our experience may encourage you to do something similar if you are looking to break into a new market or take a creative venture to the next level. A customer planted the seed of a pop-up shop when we had a stall at the Brain Foundation Christmas Fair at Tamworth Racecourse in November. “Thank goodness you’re here. I just wouldn’t have a chance to get to Nundle before Christmas,” committee member Lisa’s words turned over in my head.
Our 120-year-old store is based in Nundle, population 300, 60km from Tamworth. Usually we have a steady stream of online orders from around Australia, and over the counter customers, a mix of Nundle locals and visitors. But in the lead up to Christmas the number of over the counter customers plummets as people are lured by the convenience and glossy catalogues of chain stores in major centres, and online shopping. In late November when I drove down Tamworth’s main Peel Street I started to notice the number of empty shops with For Lease signs in the window. I am aware of the pop-up shop concept from magazine coverage of boutique businesses or artists dipping their toe in the water of retail markets they couldn’t normally afford, or local government working with landlords to revive central business districts by offering retail space at reduced rent. I took note of the real estate agent managing the properties I was interested in and made contact to work out whether we could afford a short term lease. Even short term main street retail space was out of our reach. When I contacted friend Sally Clifton to enquire about the empty room in her Pronto Catering space at the southern end of Peel Street, her enthusiasm and realistic rent was uplifting. Our cooking oriented businesses complemented each other and it was a neat fit. Sally saw our potential presence as a way to drum up sales of frozen meals, Christmas cakes, brownies and shortbread to complement her usual catering business. I thought of opening the pop-up shop three days a week for a couple of weeks leading up to Christmas, but Sally was hard core when we met to discuss the idea in late November. “I think you should act now. Start next week,” she suggested.
I took reference shots for Duncan and we talked about whether we could handle the logistics of childcare, the 120km round trip, shop fittings, and stock. We took up Sally’s offer and rang friends at Pronto’s neighbours Ruby’s Cafe and Gift Store and Tarnished so they knew our plans first hand. We gathered furniture from our house and shop to use as temporary shop fittings; I painted an old book shelf we used to store tools in a workshop, cleared two small timber tables of domestic detritus, collapsed a vintage trestle table in our study, and dusted off a counter made from recycled packing cases in the shop’s early history. We married these rustic fittings with Sally’s commercial steel mesh shelving on castors and painted concrete floor. We asked Tamworth graphic artist Peter Schulz to reproduce our Nundle window in the Pronto Catering space. Amazingly he still had our original artwork file from when he created our Nundle windows more than 10 years ago. As we unpacked stock and recreated a taste of Odgers and McClelland Exchange Stores, Nundle at Tamworth we believed we could pull it off.
With four weeks before Christmas we didn’t want to spend a lot of money on advertising so we turned to generating word of mouth awareness through Facebook posts, SMS, and email. The first day of trade The Northern Daily Leader newspaper visited to interview me and take a photo. A story, ‘Nundle shop pops up’, appeared the next day and had immediate results . “I saw the story in The Leader,” was a common response among customers when I asked how they heard about the pop-up shop. We also placed a public notice in the classifieds of The Leader, a week before packing up the pop-up. As a journalist, I was heartened that people still read newspapers.
We are grateful to Pronto Catering and neighbours Pam O’Connor of Tarnished and Christopher Woods and Leisel McIlrick Woods of Ruby’s Cafe and Gift Store for their encouragement, warm welcome, and promotion. Pronto and Odgers and McClelland joined forces to promote a Christmas hamper with a local produce flavour and serve each other’s customers, and the four businesses cross fertilised each other’s businesses through social media, e-marketing, and face-to-face interactions in the lead up to Christmas, even hosting a joint late night shopping evening with Christmas drinks and nibblies.
There were moments when we questioned our decision. In the first two weeks of the pop-up shop business in Tamworth was slow. Back at Nundle our pre-Christmas online sales reached record levels and I wasn’t around to help Duncan. We tag-teamed to care for children, customers, and the garden. After three and a half weeks of working six days a week (I hadn’t worked full time since before our son Cormac, eight, was born) we were happy to exceed the turnover goal we had set for the pop-up shop. We made sales and created awareness we would not have achieved had we not taken this leap of faith. We thank our customers who supported our pop-up shop and our friends and family for their encouragement and help.