As part of our series on pop-up shop entrepreneurs, BBVA Compass spoke to Dirk Dominick and Westcott Shaw, owners of Le Pop Up, a store within a shipping container that will soon be traveling from Birmingham, Ala., to nearby Southern cities.
About Le Pop Up
Great ideas often originate years before they’re realized. For Dirk Dominick, Westcott Shaw, and their pop-up shop, Le Pop Up, this is certainly the case.
While living in an apartment in the South of France, Dominick dreamed of importing and selling French goods in the U.S. For nearly 20 years, the idea stuck with him until he met Shaw and the plans for Le Pop Up began to take form.
“On a snowy drive up to the Smoky Mountains, we began brainstorming about how to make this idea a reality,” says Dominick. “Westcott suggested we use a shipping container for a pop-up shop, that way we wouldn’t pay rent on a brick-and-mortar. From that conversation, it took about a year for us to host our first pop up.”
Why a pop-up shop?
Full-time jobs, a love of travel, and the goal to “not be tied to a brick-and-mortar store” made the pop-up concept a desirable one for both Dominick and Shaw. Plus, the novelty of opening a store in a shipping container and the sense of urgency created by pop-up events seemed like a smart way to launch a new business.
“With a regular shop, people think ‘Oh, I’ll go check that out next week when things calm down,” says Shaw, who has worked in a high-end home furnishing store for five years. “With a pop up, it’s go now or you aren’t going to see it again.”
From shipping container to pop-up shop
The couple, whose interest in shipping containers predates their idea for Le Pop Up, jumped at the chance to convert an old container they bought for $2,000 in North Birmingham into a mobile shop they could transport from city to city. Fitted with a hydraulic door, wired for electricity, and painted inside, the renovations came in at their hoped-for budget of $3,000, for a grand total of $5,000.
“We’re doing this on a tiny, tiny budget,” says Shaw. Recurring costs for running the pop up are limited to gas, electricity, insurance, and their imports from France.
To fund their merchandise and the cost of shipping goods from France, they opened a line of credit. “It took three months to get all our merchandise back [to the U.S.],” says Dominick. “The shipping is what had kept me back from this idea for so long, because it was such an unknown, but it ended up not being a difficult thing to maneuver.”
Procuring the right paperwork
Getting licenses and insurance for a pop-up shop has been fairly easy and inexpensive, say Dominick and Shaw. For the state, county, and city licenses, they applied for a “peddler’s license,” intended for transient businesses that sell items on the street or door to door. However, because they moved from city to city, and eventually state to state, they had to apply for new licenses for each location, a process that “hasn’t been too painful” for the couple. Additionally, they took out $1 million in liability insurance through an event insurance company—a $245 cost for the weekend.
Monday-Friday businesses = free weekend space
Finding available space to pop up has also been relatively simple. So far, the duo has yet to pay rent for their weekend pop ups. “We pick out a spot and hope it’s privately owned,” says Dominick. “Then, we approach the owner and ask if they would consider letting us use it for the weekend.” The pair has picked parking lots of vacant and weekday businesses owned by family connections and high school acquaintances.
Their strategy in choosing a place to pop up: find areas that see a high volume of traffic. “We aren’t going to be a destination shop; we’re not popular enough to drive traffic to us, so we need to capture your eye when you’re walking or driving by,” says Shaw. “We need a spot where people drive by and say ‘What is that? I need to figure out what that it is.’”
A bright idea for Birmingham
The outpouring of support at their first pop-up event was tremendous, which yielded impressive profits for an opening weekend. “We had people thank us for doing something unique in Birmingham,” says Dominick. “I never imagined there would be such a strong response.”
The couple made enough after the first two days to consider closing during an afternoon storm, but eager customers begged them to keep running. “People kept coming up saying, ‘You can’t close; please don’t close.’ My mother and a coworker from my full-time job were wrapping and bagging merchandise out the back of my car with an umbrella over them,” says Shaw.
Creating a welcoming environment where a variety of customers would feel comfortable was another element that added to their success. “Working in a highend boutique, I didn’t want people to be put off thinking French goods would be too expensive, so we strove to have varying price points,” says Shaw. “I think the shipping container made it a more approachable venue. People who may not have entered if we were a fancy-looking brick-and-mortar, came in and were shocked that they could buy a $5 bar of soap from the South of France.”
Future plans for Le Pop Up
After one or two more pop ups in Birmingham (they keep the exact number secret to heighten the exclusively of their events), Dominick and Shaw plan to take their shipping container store to nearby states. “I would love to turn this into something we do full time,” says Dominick. “We both think it’s a franchisable idea, and that’s in the back of our minds. But for right now, the goal is to just have fun and streamline the process to make the operation a smooth running machine.”
Do what you love, do something you believe in
For those considering a pop-up shop of their own, Shaw says: “Focus on whatever makes you unique. Even if you doubt yourself and think ‘Oh, is it really that special?’, it is because it’s your idea and it’s something you believe in. Focus on what makes you stand out, and how that makes you different from what everyone else is doing. Also, rest up for when you pop up. And have help. Be prepared that you’re always going to need more help.”