Stackt, a new retail market in downtown Toronto, was not built to last. Paradoxically, and in the face of increasingly online shopping habits and the store-crushing lockdowns of the pandemic, its temporary nature is precisely why this new kind of shopping space has managed to succeed.
Winner of Fast Company’s 2021 Innovation By Design award for Retail, Stackt is built largely from reused shipping containers and placed on a pending development site. It’s like a shopping mall for pop-up stores, each occupying modest to micro-sized spaces inside converted shipping containers, and surrounded by a publicly accessible pedestrian promenade. Uniquely, Stackt offers a variety of flexible leases for up-and-coming businesses that range from a year or several months to a single day.
“Typically in real estate you think about five- or 10-year leases and spaces that are up in the thousands of square feet. We offer quite the opposite,” says founder Matt Rubinoff.
That flexibility even extends to Stackt itself, which was developed to stand on its site for only a limited time. The project takes up a full city block, or about 100,000 square feet of downtown land that is slated for the development of a new public park in the future. While that project’s kickoff remains an as-yet-undetermined date in the future, Stackt is leasing the space from the city and filling it with activity.
It’s a unique new form for retail as the industry faces changes wrought by e-commerce as well as the pandemic. While many shopping streets have been struggling in recent years, retailers old and new are looking for ways to make physical stores work. Canada Goose, one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies of 2021, has lured customers in by turning retail stores into experiential spaces and museum-like installations. And in another experiment, carmaker Toyota teamed with architects Bohlin Cywinski Jackson to develop a mobile pop-up store concept for the fashion accessories brand Cuyana.
Since opening in April 2019, Stackt has seen more than 1,000 businesses operate inside its metal framework. With modest construction costs due to easily converted and reconfigured shipping containers, Stackt is providing affordable retail spaces for both established brands and new businesses making their first venture into the retail world. Leasable spaces in Stackt include a 900-square-foot shop made by combining three shipping containers and removing their internal walls and a 140-square-foot mini store made by dividing a container in half. “That’s actually a lot of space for a number of these brands that are looking to just test out a product or a new concept,” Rubinoff says. “It’s very low-capital cost.” Monthly lease prices start around $1,900.
The model has been good for small businesses that have been able to get a physical foothold, even if briefly, in a crowded e-commerce market. Stackt has set aside 25 of its storefronts for very short pop-up engagements, providing a point-of-sale system to enable new companies to get going quickly. Brands and businesses can use the spaces for a single day up to a few weeks.
“We cap it at 45 days so we make sure that there are always these spaces available for that really short-term nature that these brands are looking for,” Rubinoff says. “From a consumer standpoint, when they come to visit, they’re always going to see something different.”
Other small businesses have used Stackt as a space to expand what they do. One is Makeway, a women’s sneaker and streetwear boutique. “We chose Stackt because of its versatility and unique offering,” says Shelby Weaver, cofounder of Makeway. She was drawn to the variety of local vendors, the food and beverage options on site, and the programmed event spaces, which enables Makeway to host community events and be part of those run by others. “Being at Stackt allows us to accomplish our goals without having to go offsite. From programming and events, to activations and parties, we’re able to execute all of that without ever having to leave the store or the site.”
Rubinoff says smaller companies have also benefited from their colocation with larger, more established brands like BMO (Bank of Montreal) that lease bigger spaces in the project, as well as the on-site brewery, restaurants, and revolving art installations. Stackt’s hip cachet also benefits some of these bigger companies, like BMO. “Opening a 600-square-foot branch at Stackt pushes boundaries and forces us to think differently about design and how to cater to different communities of customers,” says BMO’s Roy Stanjevich. Some pilot programs and design approaches initiated at the Stackt branch have even begun to be implemented in the bank’s other locations, he says.
Though the pandemic might have been a death knell for other retail spaces, Stackt saw its visitor numbers decline only 10% between fall 2019 and fall 2020, with people coming to enjoy roughly 75,000 square feet of pedestrian space within the project.
After two years in operation—one of which was almost entirely eaten up by the pandemic—Stackt is still going strong, Rubinoff says. The project has had its lease extended by the city until 2023, and there’s no start date in sight for the construction project that will one day take over the site.
Rubinoff knows the planned project will eventually force Stackt to leave, but that doesn’t mean the project will die. “Everything you see within that 100,000 square feet could be picked up and taken with us, whether we find another lot of that size or five different lots,” he says. And this version of the concept may just be the start. Rubinoff says he hopes to one day spread Stackt projects to other cities across Canada. “It was always the idea that this was a pilot project,” he says.
See more from Fast Company’s 2021 Innovation by Design Awards. Our new book, Fast Company Innovation by Design: Creative Ideas That Transform the Way We Live and Work (Abrams, 2021), is on sale now.