Republic Wireless is headquartered on N.C. State’s Centennial Campus, but it had no brick-and-mortal store for its members or prospective members to interact with staff, ask questions or seek advice from other members.
All of that was done via the internet. Until recently.
The homegrown company opened a pop-up shop in downtown Raleigh as a way to get in front of the people it serves, according to Barbara Sharnak, director of strategic initiatives and partnerships at Republic Wireless.
“Connecting with our members and prospective members has always been so important to us,” Sharnak said. “We’ve always wanted to get face-to-face with our members and this was really the opportunity for us to do it. Now is the time to connect with our members so they can get to know us. We want to make authentic moments."
Republic Wireless is part of a growing trend in downtown Raleigh, according to Bill King, senior director of planning and development for the Downtown Raleigh Alliance.
“Honestly, we have more interest from stores and restaurant entrepreneurs looking to try pop-ups than we have space for them to work with in downtown,” King said.
The Republic Wireless pop-up shop, which opened at 17 E. Martin St. in early October and will stay open through the end of the year, is set up like someone’s home; not your average cellular store.
“It’s not set up like a traditional retailer,” Sharnak said. “It feels like a house. There’s a living room, a kitchen, a kids’ corner. We want people to be able to have a full family home environment to get to know us and experience who we are and engage with us in a way that’s authentic."
The home-like atmosphere serves another purpose, too, perhaps one that’s somewhat unexpected for a wireless carrier.
“We want to make sure that people use their phone and their service to connect with family and friends. We don’t want the phone to rule your life. We want to make sure that we help you get back to the ones you love,” Sharnak said.
Those who walk into the pop-up retailer are greeted and offered local coffee and snacks from nearby purveyors and artisans.
“If you have an appointment or you just come in because you’re passing by, we’re going to sit down with you and get to know you and understand what you want with your service,” Sharnak said. “The emphasis is on the human-to-human connection.
“We are born and bred here,” Sharnak continued. “We were formed as a consumer product out of Bandwith. Our home is on Centennial Campus. It’s important for us to be part of our hometown community. We’re just really proud of where we were born.”
Poppin’ up downtown
While temporary shops may pop up throughout the year, the holiday season is prime time for the business model. And downtown has proved to be the prime location, said King, of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance.
Pop-ups also bring more competition to the marketplace, but there's no reason that pop-ups and traditional stores and restaurants can't get along, King said.
“We haven’t heard much negative feedback from restaurants or retailers on pop-ups,” King said. “I think most see them as good ways to help entrepreneurs test downtown, build a brand and add something new to the downtown storefront mix. I think the biggest thing we need are more viable spaces to work with for pop-ups."
The city’s take
In Raleigh, bureaucratic hurdles typically don't stand in the way of opening a pop-up shop.
If a space will be reused for a similar purpose, there’s no requirement for the city to get involved, according to Travis Crane, assistant planning director for the city of Raleigh. For retail-to-retail uses, there’s no permitting required, Crane said.
“It’s changing from another use to retail where building permits might be required,” he explained.
Regulating pop-up retail operations in existing buildings isn’t something the city has on its radar, Crane continued, “because that can happen organically in the market.”
“There’s no need for government intrusion,” he said. “If there’s a vacant storefront and if the use is permitted in the district, the user can move in. It’s only if there’s been a significant change in the use that the city gets involved. If it’s just like-use for like-use, there’s really no city process that’s needed there.”
A city committee has been assembled to consider regulations for potential future external pop-up retail, which is similar to food trucks, but instead of burritos, the purveyor sells clothes or art or the like.
“There is a City Council committee that has been discussing what we’re calling mobile retail because we’re seeing some interest in external pop-up retail,” Crane said.
He referenced Pitch and Primer, which sell men’s grooming and clothing products out of an Airstream trailer.
“Our zoning code doesn’t have a use code for that type of activity, so there will be a future discussion,” Crane said.