Pop-Up Retail in Canada Grows Significantly Amid COVID-19: Experts

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The pandemic crisis has created a golden opportunity for pop-up retail across Canada to enter the marketplace in a unique way.

Michael Kehoe, a retail specialist with Fairfield Commercial Real Estate in Calgary, said these are the golden days of pop-up retail stores and restaurants in Canada.

“Rising consumer real estate vacancy levels in the age of COVID-19 are providing opportunities for retailers and foodservice professionals to test-drive new product and menu offerings on a short-term basis in a low-risk commercial environment. Proactive and creative landlords and building owners are seeking out pop-up tenants to keep their storefronts activated and incubate new long-term tenants. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ once said Thomas Edison,” said Kehoe.


Linda Farha, Founder and Chief Connector at Toronto-based pop-up go, said when the initiative started close to four years ago it was about people who wanted to do activations to either get business intelligence, test a specific location for a long-term opportunity, or maybe even to test a product or a new concept. It was experiential.

“That process or that rationale for doing a pop-up versus today’s rationale is very different. And also I would say back then, and over time, and up until pre-pandemic, the tendency was to do a pop-up in many cases in a mall and sometimes street locations. But it wasn’t like specifically one or the other,” said Farha.

“We’re seeing a shift and we started seeing it beforehand. A lot of the things that are happening today COVID exponentially made those things happen faster. We were already starting to see a tendency toward pop-ups that were non-fashion related, non-mall related. But now we’re seeing exactly that. A lot of the pop-ups are food, accessories, things that fall into the categories of what people are actually purchasing now because of COVID. So if you’re buying lounge wear and pajamas and sweat pants and whatever else people are doing pop-ups in those particular categories that follow that trend.

“Of course, they’re doing it to get visibility in a brick and mortar environment to supplement their visibility online. And they’re also doing it to just create brand awareness but really in most cases not with the intentions of being a permanent store. Secondly, we’re seeing a lot more of a transition from interest in mall locations to outdoor and/or storefront locations.”

For example, parking lots are being used for pop-up locations. Restaurants are also creating outdoor pop-up locations.

Whether it is for a few hours or a few months, pop-up go provides organizations across North America with a range of available spaces for pop-up activations. The initiative helps make the connection by providing an online ‘meeting place’ that brings together diverse organizations who want to host or execute pop-ups and locate appropriate spaces for them. The concept connects a landlord and a seeker of space.

“About 30 percent of the inquiries I’m getting are from Alberta and I don’t know why that is,” said Farha. “It’s really strange. In the past month or so, Alberta seems to be where people are trying to do pop-ups.

“In some cases people are coming to us for tech-related. They’re not as much experiential as they had been in the past because of COVID. Malls have always been difficult with pop-ups. They never really wanted to do it. Then they started focusing on it. And now I think they’re realizing we need to. But I’m getting push back from a lot of people who are saying ‘you know we’re concerned about having a pop-up for a short-term in our mall because we want to make sure they comply with COVID regulations and it’s too complicated so it’s not worth it. So we’d rather have vacancies than have to worry about a non-compliant tenant who is going to mess things up basically for our mall’.”


The concept is creating a new initiative called projeX which is an online marketplace for people who want to do pop-ups or experiential type things.

“The projeX website is going to be for those who want to start off with an online experiential pop-up and then transfer it to a physical one when they’re ready,” explained Farha.

In this day and age with the challenges of COVID and the struggling economy, retailers are looking for shorter leases to make sure they can test out their concepts and survive.

“Five years in the world that we live in today is so long. The world changes so rapidly and demand changes so rapidly and consumers are so fickle. What’s really hot today is not hot tomorrow, and it happens extremely quickly,” said Farha. “There is a lot of concern for these brands that are doing these pop-ups that may have the intention of being in a permanent scenario to kind of commit for that long. And that long being maybe even more than a year.

“What this has created is that the landlord community has to kind of change, pivot tremendously. This trend is getting more tight or more restricted. They had to shift from 10 years to five years. Now they have to shift to potentially one year leases. It makes it more complicated for them and obviously more work for them but it’s also a little shift in terms of the mindset.”

Article Author

Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He now works on his own as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training.

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