As Michele Varian sees it, the past few years were somewhat of a perfect storm for brick-and-mortar retail. “Just as the commercial real-estate market was becoming really unsustainable for small businesses, e-commerce was coming of age,” the designer and longtime New York shopkeeper tells AD PRO. As a result, many young brands either didn’t have the means and knowledge to dip their toes into physical retail space or simply didn’t bother. But as Varian points out, especially when it comes to unique, handmade items, “people still want to touch and feel things. Especially in our world, where we specialize in the aspirational. It’s about individuality, quality, innovation, uniqueness. Those are not the kinds of things that sell well online without people having vetted them in person.” So, many small brands, both digital-first and older companies that had been pushed out of their brick-and-mortar spaces, turned to the pop-up shop.
“But even doing a pop-up is wildly expensive,” Varian, whose Howard Street shop sells a variety of furniture, lighting, and accessories both of her design and by other creatives, points out. “You have to build it out, stock it, and landlords would ask for premium prices since it was a short-term lease.” So, a little over a year ago, real-estate broker and business strategist Jay Norris had an idea: Why not create a digital process for existing shops to host small brands in their spaces? After sharing his idea with Varian (both are Detroit natives who collaborated on the pop-up Detroit Built at Varian’s shop several years ago) while discussing the difficulties of today’s retail climate, the two teamed up and brought on three more partners – Alexander Libkind, Edward Ludvigsen, and David Otani – to create Guesst, a platform to connect retailers and brands around the world.
Jay Norris and Michele Varian, two of Guesst’s five partners.