Interviewed: Tristan Pollock of Storefront, the Airbnb of Retail Space

Retail is changing. E-commerce isn’t cutting it for everyone, nor are the big box stores or large storefronts sitting vacant for months at a time. Enter pop-up stores, aka temporary retail. Imagine quirky boutique vendors occupying retail space for short stints, only to take turns with other funky makers and artists. Tristan Pollock (pictured left) is the co-Founder of Storefront, an online marketplace that connects designers and artists with unique, temporary retail space. Tristan started Storefront with Erik Eliason in 2012 after going through the AngelPad program (ranked by Forbes as the #4 startup accelerator). Now their company, often labeled as the “Airbnb of Retail,” has thousands of store listings around the country and is looking to shake up the retail scene with a solution that’s a win for small retailers, commercial real estate owners and even neighborhoods seeking revival.

Robert Poole: What does Storefront do?

Tristan Pollock: In the simplest terms, Storefront makes retail accessible.

How?

Storefront allows anyone to find and rent the best retail spaces in their city. Uses range from pop-up shops to trunk shows to retail events like product launches.

You’ve often been called the “Airbnb of retail.” Can you dive further into this comparison?

It’s an easy comparison upfront. We’re both an online marketplaces that are making the use of space more efficient, but they’re residential and we’re retail.

On one side, we’re making the use of retail space more efficient, but we also want to make the businesses that use our service better. The people may have been working out of their apartments, but now they can own their own store. And they have brands that are venturing offline for the first time. We want to facilitate that upward mobility.

That’s what is so unique about Storefront in the sharing economy. We’re B2B (business-to-business) and directly fueling peoples’ passions.

Why did you start Storefront?

Erik and I come from families that respected the creative retail experience. We both worked in e-commerce, and saw more and more brands that were built online now turning to offline retail. We also had friends who were designers and artists trying to start pop-ups. One friend in particular talked to 20 commercial real estate brokers, 10 insurance providers, and didn’t get a the lease length or price they wanted. We knew there was a better way to do retail.

We often compare it to the music industry. Online tools such as iTunes allow us to unbundle songs, so we can purchase a single song versus a whole album. It became more custom for the person buying the music. That’s what we’re allowing to happen for the retail industry. Maybe a long lease wasn’t the best option, but that’s what the market was telling me to do. Now, instead of signing a five or 10-year lease, we can unbundle it down to a day, week or month.

Why did you choose to start in San Francisco and where else do you have listings?

San Francisco is a creative, vibrant community with a unique style of fashion. We wanted to start Storefront in a place that allows our business to grow. San Francisco was the right fit. We now have hundreds of retail space listings in San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles, and thousands of listings nation-wide.  

How does the business model work?

All of the renters and space owners on Storefront are real people pursuing their passions. We're a marketplace, similar to Airbnb. On one side you have retail space from many of the best shopping streets. On the other side we have amazing brands, designers, and artists looking to create vibrant real world experiences. Storefront makes the process of finding and renting these spaces simple. We charge nothing until a connection is made. Then we take a small percentage of the transaction. Pop-up insurance and support to answer any of your questions is included.

                        

 

                        

Pop-up retail has always been possible, but it seems to have gained more traction as of late. Why is that?

A lot of the businesses that use Storefront are in fashion, and just like the tech scene, fashion is a fast-moving and trendy industry. Businesses are consistently looking for ways to increase their brand awareness and reach more customers.

Eventually, people realized that the pop-up model just made sense. They want to do business in a smart and lean way. And they want to know that the model will work, not hope that it works.

Temporary retail can bring a critical mass to certain time and place and bring that event to the people. Storefront helps achieve both.

Where does pop-up retail work best?

It works best in places with high foot traffic. That’s why we want to be anywhere there’s an urban core. We want to be in every town square and urban center.

We target key spaces in the best shopping streets. And those spaces may vary depending on the vendor. We also look at markets and fairs. One example is the Northside Festival Pop Up Village in Brooklyn.

You partnered with the New York MTA (Metro Transit Authority) to bring vendors into the City's subway stations. Tell us about this experience. Why did you choose to work with them and what kind of vendors are you seeing?

MTA is rethinking the New York subway experience. They have hundreds of small or mid-sized retail spaces. They came to Storefront to fill them with local artists, designers and brands.

What do people value in retail and how has that changed over time? 

Back in the 60’s, retail was very cut-and-dried. It was merely a transaction that allowed people to buy and sell products. With the evolution of the Internet, it is no longer necessary for people to do the transaction in person. They can do it all online.

However, today businesses are realizing that people value real world experiences. Something they don’t get online. Basically, retail is becoming an experience and Storefront is facilitating that.

Let's talk more about the experience component. How is Storefront building community in the retail scene and the neighborhoods it works in?

Storefront builds community through our marketplace, connecting amazing businesses with retail space owners. In turn, vacancies are filled and collaborations formed. Communities also benefit, because these vibrant experiences are now occurring more frequently in their neighborhoods.

We also live and breath what we do. That means we host meet-ups in Storefront spaces and educate about retail. We just moved into the 49 Geary Art Gallery building and we'll be hosting art and fashion experiences in our office like a showroom. We foster a culture that is as passionate as the makers we serve. We aren't just storytellers, but story doers.

                       

 

                       

What is your favorite success story?

There’s a lot, but one of the first people that comes to mind is Christina Ruiz of Top Shelf Boutique. I wouldn’t say her story is a unicorn, but we started working with her when we were just getting Storefront going, so the whole experience stands out.

Christina always wanted her own store. She had taken out small business loans, but couldn’t afford to open one and didn’t want to sign a 5-year lease, so she started her own fashion truck and began bringing it to every street fair she could. Eventually, she connected with Storefront and got into a collaborative pop-up shop with several other vendors. She did the best out of everyone in terms of revenue and was able to raise enough money to start her own pop-up shop. Today, she has two pop-up stores in San Francisco and continues to work with us. She’s even in the process of listing retail space on her truck for rent on Storefront.

What is your goal for Storefront and for the makers and artisans that use it?

Our goal is to help people grow their businesses and create vibrant communities in the process. We want to find people passionate about what they do and help them do more of it.

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