In a retail environment which was challenging even before Covid-19, it is perhaps bold to say that your business will open 17 new retail outlets by the end of this year. But that is what Sook’s Chief Operating Officer, Paul Mitchell, told The Edinburgh Reporter the company is aiming for in 2022.

Sook – the hidden name of the apparently empty shop unit on the ground floor of St James Quarter derives from the Middle Eastern marketplace rather than from any Scottish meaning. It is described as a place where people can come together to do business, or as Mitchell explained, for third sector organisations to use the space to promote what they do. So every day this unit could be dedicated to one or more businesses, renting out the time to them and using technology to transform the shop.

When we asked what people can do here Paul replied: “Well, the question is what they can’t do here – that’s what I would say. Sook exists as the interface between physical and online retail. We effectively take over an empty space from a landlord and reactivate the space in a more interesting way.

“So what you see in front of you is that we’ve got digital wallpaper, which you can upload your content to. And it’s for everybody to be honest, we’re a community player. We are a retailer, we’re an NHS pop up site, (which has happened here with NHS testing and vaccinations). We’ve had day poppers in – we just had Radley handbags in here for three months. We are everything to everybody.”

Possible “tenants” are invited to design their own pop up shop using the online Sook Builder placing photos, text or videos on large digital screens on three walls where logos, websites or YouTube videos can be displayed. And the digital signage screens in the window also have adaptable shelving bays to catch the attention of passers by.

The Edinburgh Reporter is staging a pop up shop in Sook on 1 February and we would love to see you there. Find us on the bottom level of St James Quarter from 9am to 8pm. Come and pick up a copy of our February issue or chat to us about your story.

One of the major selling points of the business is that without any set up costs such as furniture, the shop is immediately professionally branded and to passers by it looks like a really well established retail outlet. But, in addition, Sook also offers a tech advantage, with an array of cameras which measure footfall, or the best places to stand in the store – and there are “Sentiment Cameras” which will determine if the passer by or visitor is in a good mood or not. Analytics is a big part of future development as the company is attempting to apply an equivalent of Google Analytics to how a physical space is occupied.

John Hoyle is CEO and founder of Sook and he refers to their take on retail as a “disruptive platform”. As a property developer and asset manager, he joined an accelerator in London to discuss how to solve problems by using tech and he came up with the idea for Sook which is all about using spaces in a more suitable way.

But Paul explained that John had always envisaged this business as a “community player”.

He continued: “It is not all about big brands, it is about the third sector and helping them, or helping entrepreneurs who can’t afford space on the street. You are in Scotland’s busiest shopping centre now. It gives opportunities to people who are the “day poppers” of the world, the guys that are on Shopify. It gives them the opportunity to come in here to a Grade A site, activate their space and sell to the public. That is more valuable to them quite often than it is to be making money.Our reach is phenomenal.

“Community is a big part of this store. Edinburgh launched with the Women’s Business Station from Dundee which is a third sector group of lady entrepreneurs. They had fifteen entrepreneurs coming through here in two weeks and their whole ethos is to give women a chance to sell their goods.”

Women’s Business Station (WBS) is a social enterprise which supports any women who want to set up a business. Their mantra is “The first stop to the best start” for women looking to start, build or grow a business.

The products they displayed during a two week residency at Sook Edinburgh included fashion, flowers, candles and chocolates.

The move was supported by Edinburgh accountancy firm Steedman. Kirstin Strachan, operations director at Steedman said, “Working with Angie and the team at Women’s Business Station has highlighted how wide the divide is and how many women go undervalued and unnoticed in the start-up stage up business. If given the right help to start, scale and succeed their contribution to both community and the economy would be substantial. When we were afforded the opportunity to sponsor an event which allows women to bring their product or service to market in one of the best locations in Edinburgh, we jumped at the chance to be involved.”

Angie De Vos, Founder & CEO at Women’s Business Station said: “Working with SOOK and having a retail space in St James Quarter was a fantastic opportunity for our members to gain trading experience within a prime location while raising greater awareness of their brand. For visitors, it was a brilliant opportunity to shop and explore some new female-led, up and coming brands which are new to the market.

“The High Street may be changing but there are huge opportunities ahead. With such a huge appetite to see and touch products in real life again and enjoy more of an experience than shopping alone, this is an exciting and opportune time to engage and connect with some of the most exciting new entrepreneurs branching out in Scotland.”

L-R – Paul Mitchell from Sook, Kirstin Strachan from Steedman Accountancy, Angie De Vos from Women’s Business Station and Jen McAlinden from Solasonach
L-R – Kate Purdie and Emma Bradbury from Foxglove Stockbridge, Kirstin Strachan from Steedman Accountancy, Angie De Vos from Women’s Business Station, Laura Grace Caldwell from Wear with Grace and Jen McAlinden from Solasonach

Potential occupiers can target the hours and place that is suited to their needs. Sook’s track record may be a little limited owing to Covid-19 but the business claims it has been booming since April 2020. In Cambridge it is very much community led – with clients such as hypno-birthing coaches, Local BID parties and festival art photography.

In the fashion district in London’s South Molton St the occupation is definitely fashion and art led with meet ups and even a marriage proposal which was made there.

In Edinburgh those who have come to pop up at Sook have included Hard Rock Café with Lionel Messi, a whisky distillery and it has been used as a Lego screening room.

The only constraints are those imposed by the landlords, so in the case of Edinburgh it cannot be used as a kitchen, but the shop which you see at the front is actually double the size with another back of house area for storage or for some privacy.

Paul said: “The idea is to sell the space by an hour – you dont have to be somewhere 24/7. Occupiers are not liable for rent and rates – which can be quite prohibitive of course. I am an old retailer – I worked for House of Fraser for a long time. Next the Sook brand will be rolled out in 17 stores in the UK, doubling the company by the end of the year which is hugely exciting.We are now going international as we have nearly secured a site in North America which is a real game changer. So what we are doing is not just telling the UK market that retail needs to reinvent itself, we are helping to find a solution for everybody across the planet – which is exciting.”

One of the brand’s tag lines is “We sell time not space”. The occupier gets to try out a high street location without a huge commitment to rent and rates. Sook suggest that there is a sweet spot for the time required – largely around six hours, but other occupants have taken the space for as short as one hour. A retailer could be stationed in multiple Sook locations at the same time. The neutral colour palette in the shop has a bit of an Apple store look, so it lends itself to any kind of business or charitable organisation getting their message across.

Sook also has access to furniture rentals and can put in the sofa and chair layout occupiers would love to have. Their shelving system is moveable and a fashion store could have hanging rails, or art could be hung on the walls. This reuse of the space and the components within it adds to the company’s view that this is sustainable retail. With the sophisticated lighting system which allows for colour washes and all kinds of mood lighting the space can become entirely bespoke and all within fifteen minutes.

Other sites already operating include Oxford Street, South Molton Street, Cambridge, and the Metrocentre Gateshead.