SMEs offered free pop-up space on Oxford Street

Small retailers can set up shop in one of the UK’s best-known shopping locations, rent free.

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Written and reviewed by:
Helena Young

Retail SMEs are to be given the chance to take over a shop on Oxford Street, rent-free and with reduced business rates, as part of a new project being run by Westminster City Council.

Launched in partnership with New West End Company, “Meanwhile On: Oxford Street” will allow 35 brands to take over the sites previously used by US sweet shops, after many were discovered to be fronts for illegitimate businesses.

Running over the next three years, the programme’s first pop-up store is set to open in autumn 2023. Successful startups will be offered an initial tenancy agreement for a fixed term of six months.

The scheme forms part of the council’s wider Fairer Economy plan to revitalise central London’s high streets. UK towns and cities have not yet recovered from a loss of footfall during the pandemic, wiping a huge number of big name brands from the high street.

What is ‘Meanwhile On: Oxford Street’?

Westminster City Council is specifically calling for applications from what it describes as “up-and-coming brands” looking to launch their first store or physical space.

To be eligible, applicants must be able to fund the other associated costs of running a store for six months and show potential to launch long-term after developing their brand through the programme. To support their growth plans, successful entrants will also benefit from:

  • Six-months rent-free tenancy on London’s iconic Oxford Street
  • 70% reduction on business rates liability throughout tenancy
  • PR and marketing support
  • Store design, mentoring and management from retail consultants, Someday Studios

BDO’s May 2023 report of high street sales recorded negative growth for the first time in over two years, as the cost of living crisis hit consumer wallets. Despite these conditions, Oxford Street remains a dream destination for retailers.

As one of the best-known and most popular shopping destinations in Europe, it is the north star for retailers seeking to open a shop. Sadly, it is also one of the most expensive areas for business rates, making it difficult for SMEs with smaller cash reserves to access.

John Hoyle is founder of Sook, a provider of flexible pop-up retail spaces for SMEs which also has locations in the Westminster borough.

“Space on Oxford Street is expensive because of the high real estate values, driven by high quality footfall,” Hoyle explains. “Even at a high price point, brands located there can achieve specific objectives and deliver a return on investment.”

As business overheads like rent and mortgage rates skyrocket – sending many big-name brands into administration – “Meanwhile On: Oxford Street” will allow fledgling retailers to set up a temporary pop-up front on one of the world’s most iconic shopping streets.

🖱️ Interested retailers should apply to the scheme via the website

How short-term rentals are popping-up the retail sector

The ability to scale at speed is certainly one of the main reasons why more retail SMEs are leaning into pop-up selling.

Hoyle tells Startups that emerging retailers gain many benefits from a pop-up, such as improved brand awareness and audience insights – both of which are crucial in today’s harsh trading landscape.

“Brands that are just getting started are rarely able to commit to the overhead costs of a long term lease,” he adds. “Pop-ups provide an opportunity to build a strong omnichannel approach while establishing a customer base.”

Kitty McEntee is founder of Lab Tonica. McEntee was offered a short-term pop-up in 2021, selling aromatherapy gifts on Regent Street.

The support allowed McEntee to make important connections with other retailers on Oxford Street and Lab Tonica now has a permanent concession in Selfridges. In a press release, she said the experience “helped to fast-track the launch of my brand.”

The rise of experiential shopping

Businesses selected for the Meanwhile On: Oxford Street programme are also being encouraged to use digital marketing trends to capitalise on the high-profile space, and bring their brand’s story to life with interactive, tech-led exhibitions.

Unlike the characterless, plain-walled stores of many flash retail shops, modern providers like Sook offer a digital fit-out at every location. Retailers can take advantage of a customisable backdrop to ensure their pop-up fully reflects their unique branding.

This gives in-store visitors a memorable experience that ensures a short-term rental translates into long-term wins for the business.

“Pop-ups act as a vehicle for businesses to create digital living ads,” says Hoyle. “One partner, Freddie’s Flowers, saw its website traffic increase by 108% during its Sook activation.”

This is a continuation of a growing trend within retail: experiential shopping. With a focus on delivering a memorable encounter, it is all about offering an incentive for customers beyond making a purchase (just look at the marketing campaign for Barbie for inspiration).

While doomsayers have predicted that the retail sector will go out of style, others argue that innovative pop-up spaces will help rebrand the traditional brick-and-mortar sector.

The Westminster programme is a great opportunity for the lucky chosen brands. But for any that don’t make the scheme, or for the traders that must be more tactical with when and where they go under the spotlight, there are still plenty of pop-up spaces to commandeer.

Sook previously operated three units and still operates two in Westminster, charging market rate for premium space that all SMEs can utilise. While not rent-free, its locations are a safer bet for the companies wanting to occupy prime premises with similarly low barriers to entry.

Plus, Hoyle adds, the Sook business model provides ‘long-term regeneration for high streets’. He argues its legacy will continue long after programmes like Meanwhile On: Oxford Street have closed up shop.

“Small brands can use Sook to connect with their customers in the moments that matter most for their business. For example, across different trading calendar months,” he explains.

“It is vital for small businesses to have access to traditionally expensive retail real estate so that UK high streets remain relevant and reflect customer needs.”

Fledgling businesses can also move into cheaper premises in the capital by renting a coworking office. Read more about the options available in our full guide to the best cheap London coworking space.

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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