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the creativity gap

Debbie Nichol opened Latest Scoop, a pop-up store that operates for only a few weeks at a time in constantly changing locations.

No display windows flanked with hiply dressed mannequins signal the existence of this boutique. Instead, walk through an unmarked door on Vancouver's bustling 4th Avenue, up the nondescript staircase, and you will be transported into an unexpected retail extravaganza – if you know where to find it.

Latest Scoop, a pop-up store that opens for only a few weeks at a time in constantly changing locations, is buzzing. A DJ spins tunes in between packed clothing racks, customers sip beverages while surveying new offerings – martini glasses next to heels from L.A., fake mustaches next to handbags from Bali – and laughter can be heard from the group change room where women gather to try on clothes, public pool style.

This space is one part clothing boutique, one part party – but two days ago it was a stark, unpainted warehouse space. A week from now, it will be again.

Debbie Nichol, the woman behind this orchestrated madness, is doing her favourite thing: hanging out on the floor talking to customers.

Work wasn't always like this for Ms. Nichol. For two decades, she owned a successful independent women's clothing store on Granville Street, and life was fine, although much more typical.

"My biggest fear is mediocrity," Ms. Nichol says. This statement hints at what drives her. After selling her store when she had a son, she missed working. But retail is a hard business. She didn't miss struggling to pay the expensive Granville Street rents during the slow months of January and February. She didn't miss the pressure to keep the shelves full of merchandise regardless of whether she thought she could sell it. There had to be a better way.

Despite her decades of retail experience, Ms. Nichol allowed herself to question why things had to be so – an essential prerequisite to conceiving genuinely creative and original ideas. When considering how to best re-enter retail, she didn't default to the obvious.

"Out of 12 months, there's probably 6 months you know you're going to make money," she says, recalling her years on Granville Street. "There's a couple months you know you're going to lose money, and there's a couple months you know you're going to break even. I got rid of those months."

Her great idea: During the slow months, why bother?

So instead of opening a typical store, Ms. Nichol employed a radical idea. She would offer a selective inventory to a selective clientele for a very short time. Word of mouth from former retail customers would be key.

Enter Latest Scoop. The store's first location, in 2004, was open for only three weeks. Instead of committing to a lease and staff costs for a permanent store, Ms. Nichol and her partner took over a vacant retail space for this short period with the goal of creating a spontaneous and fleeting shopping experience. Merchandise sold out quickly.

Although Ms. Nichol's idea was novel in the early aughts, it has since developed into a movement called "pop-up retail," in which stores open in temporary locations for only as long as their inventory lasts before appearing elsewhere.

Ms. Nichol says the approach enables her to stay ultra-current, able to react creatively to every nuance of a trend. Instead of maintaining continuous inventory, she is constantly replenishing. "Most buyers are purchasing three to four months out," she explains. "If we're opening a store in April, we are buying in March. While the store is open I go to L.A. to replenish every seven to 10 days. I would rather fly to L.A. than to be sitting on stock. It allows us to be spontaneous."

It also allows Latest Scoop to compete on price. Without fixed overhead costs, she can enjoy healthy margins while passing down savings to customers. She can offer many products for a better price than customers will find elsewhere.

Because her stores are in constant transition, she produces a new experience with every store. "I think shopping can involve theatrics," she says. "Remember when shopping was fun?"

Ms. Nichol knows that the key to keeping her concept fresh is seeing the possibilities in retail that others miss. She accomplishes that by bringing in fresh eyes. "We have a lot of customers in their early twenties, so I bring an employee in her early twenties along on buying trips. You need to have other perspectives."

"Retail has become boring," Ms. Nichol says. "The economic downturn has made buyers tighten their belts and avoid taking risks, she argues, resulting in predictability. "They stopped being creative. They stopped having fun. When I stop having fun, I'll be finished."

Special to The Globe and Mail