Three years ago, Nicola Ballard of Rudeboyz Artwork saw an advertisement on the local news asking for businesses to participate in a new retail program called the Queen City Pop Up.
"I found the program attractive because (at the time) I was thinking, ‘I would really like to have a storefront, and I don't know where to get started,’" Ballard said.
Ballard is exactly the kind of entrepreneur the Queen City Pop Up sought out to attract at the beginning, and the small business retailer program, now in its fourth year, continues to excel, with each class of inductees bringing fresh new ideas, knowledge, and talent to the downtown marketplace.
In that moment, Ballard considered herself a fresh recruit. Now, she's a full-fledged business owner. She joins nine other business owners who started off as participants in the program and are now operating their own brick-and-mortar shops.
"It's kind of like being a debutante. The program introduces you to the world," she said.
During Ballard's pop-up cycle, she said she discovered where the city's business incubators were, was offered free advertising for her business, a two-month rent-free space to grow her product, and the chance to connect with other retailers starting off on the same foot.
"You get to meet other people who are in the same situation you're in," Ballard said.
To grow your product, you really have to know your product. Ballard recommends retailers investigate other brands with a similar product for inspiration, as she did with mall stores like Spencer's, before trying out the pop-up run.
The visual artist from the West Side was pleased with the culture created by the retailers in their shared space during her cycle, because it's the same culture she promotes in her business, Rudeboyz Artworks. Located on West Ferry Street, Rudeboyz is an airbrush and T-shirt boutique that rallies behind "the little guy," according to Ballard, whose husband, Qean, runs the business with her.
Since graduating from the pop-up program, Rudeboyz Artwork has become a vendor for the Buffalo public school system, teaching airbrush technique at after-school programs so students can learn how to design their own T-shirt creations.
Rudeboyz is also a strong proponent of the "open create" format, and they throw in-store events like family-friendly paint nights where parents, children, and performers of all ages can enjoy one another's company.
Ballard is still friends with some of the vendors she shared the pop-up space with during her cycle of the program, even carrying a few of their greeting cards in her boutique.
The boon of cross-promotion is an attractive component to general pop-up retail, said chocolatier and “Cup Cake Wars” alumna Michele Ogden, owner of Whimsy Confections on Amherst Street. She noted that pop ups featuring businesses with similar target markets but that are not direct competitors “would be great for my business."
Read more about Odgen's entrepreneurial journey here
Ogden's past experiences with the Queen City Pop Up program has been valuable to her business, as it allowed her to highlight new products and have access to a wider consumer market. With the holidays as her busy time, Ogden agrees that a pop-up shopping experience can be a more relaxed, scaled-back experience for a customer.
"Certain (larger) stores I don't go to because the shopping experience is too much, so it feels overwhelming, especially around the holidays,” she said. “So I think if you can scale that back and tailor that, it's great.”
In organizing this year's holiday run, Brandye Merriweather, vice president of downtown development for the Buffalo Urban Development Corp., sought out small businesses that carry gift-giving items like custom apparel, bath and body products, and Buffalo-centric designs, as she vouches that anything with the word "Buffalo" on it "flies out the door."
"I don't care what it is, it could be a sock with a buffalo on it, and everyone wants it," she said.
The program hasn't been successful only in generating holiday buzz; every new class of recruits seems to grow an attachment to the program and the partnerships they've formed with others, making them more willing to refer their friends.
"Even the retailers that don't have their own shops, but are still operating online are incredible in pushing the word out," Merriweather said.
Like Keyarie Maclin, who operates both online and downtown. The fashionista goes by "Yar Mo" and owns a vintage and modern clothing boutique of the same name, Yar Mo's Muse.
The Queen City Pop Up was an opportunity she had to jump on. After her pop-up event ended, Yar Mo ran down the street hauling dresses and pushing racks of clothing to claim her Main Street storefront in the Theatre District. She was also seven months pregnant at the time of her move in.
Yar Mo is now successfully running her own program that helps groom small businesses interested in participating in the pop up, called "Showerpreneur Wine Tour," a mentorship program aimed at women and mothers such as herself.
"We come together for house warmings, baby showers, and all these things, but what about empowering our fellow sister who wants to do something else with her life? How can we help her with that?” she said.
Merriweather wants people to think of the Queen City Pop Up as more of a test program, where there is no pressure to perform.
"There's no obligation or anything. There's nothing where when you finish, you sign on the dotted line,” she said. “I think that speaks to the retailers who have opened, because there is no obligation for them to sign a lease, so the ones that open shop are genuinely opening because they had a great experience with the pop up.”