From Europe to Central Asia, converted containers are trendy

An employee of the diagnostics provider Centogene works inside a container housing their mobile laboratory at Germany's first walk-through coronavirus disease (COVID-19) test center in a airport at the international airport in Frankfurt, Germany, 30 June 2020. [Ronald Wittek/EPA/EFE]

Pop-up stores and restaurants using converted shipping containers are a growing trend in Europe and across the world, apparently boosted by behavioural changes caused by the Covid pandemic. EURACTIV Bulgaria reports.

Many restaurants and bars in Europe have had to adapt to a new form of customer service. In Bulgaria, the company “Balkan containers” producing modular constructions, is growing exponentially. Across Europe, containers have been used to add space to hospitals. In Italy, after suffering many restrictions, restaurants are allowed to have constructions outside their buildings, and for many of their owners, shipping containers offer a lifeline. Markets such as Boxpark in London and pop-up stores scattered all over Berlin, Paris and Amsterdam have showcased the trend of innovative small businesses and shopping local.

The converted shipping container, offering a modern and unconventional shopping experience merged with open-air socializing, is likely to boom and grow beyond 2021.

Compared to larger companies, small businesses have on average been impacted more severely by Covid-19, according to the World Bank. Reportedly, more than half (53%) of small firms stated they expect to fall into rent arrears compared to only 36% of large firms.

Renting a container often costs less than half the rent of a traditional shop, allowing small businesses to invest more into their product range, sustainability and workforce. The budget-friendly shipping containers also offer much-needed flexibility to businesses which are having to adapt to repeated full and semi-lockdowns across Europe.

Speaking to EURACTIV, Anneke Short, Co-Founder of the Camden Watch Company based at Boxpark in London, said: “We love the flexibility that a place like Boxpark offers. Retail leases are typically old-fashioned. You have to sign up for years, whereas container shops allow yearly, quarterly, and even monthly contracts. As a small business with a very close eye on cash-flow, that kind of flexibility is priceless.”

“I can only see it [the trend of using converted container shops] increasing”.

COVID has accelerated the inevitable switch to online and large, expensive retail locations with long leases are a lot less attractive than they once were. Flexible spaces like shipping-container parks, that offer a real-world storefront but don’t cost the earth, are only going to grow in popularity,” Anneke Short adds.

Using re-modelled shipping containers to help businesses adapt to and survive new economic realities in 2021 is a creative solution which will support local economies and allow consumers to opt for shopping at open-air, smaller, local and eco-friendly businesses. While this concept has emerged fairly recently in Europe with the trend gathering pace around 2014, converted-container shopping spaces have been vital to Central Asian economies since early 2000s.

Dordoi, the largest clothing market in Central Asia, based in Kyrgyzstan, emerged in 1991 as the main transhipment base for goods from China to Central Asian countries. Markets such as Dordoi have become essential to economic growth and opened up unique opportunities for locals to trade internationally and create economic security for generations to come.

Aziz, a converted-container shop owner and a businessman, said: “My family used to own three containers at Dordoi Market and we were all selling clothes. My parents were able to make their living off the market and give higher education to all of their three children. Converted containers were a better employment opportunity than anything else that was available back in the early 2000s, owning containers was a very successful business.”

Today, more than 40,000 retail outlets are operating from re-modelled shipping containers at Dordoi, employing more than 55,000 people and indirectly providing earnings for close to 90,000 people.

“I bought a container here [at Dordoi Market] and it was much cheaper than renting a shop or a selling point in the city centre,” said Gulnara, a converted-container shop owner and merchant.

In Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Abu Saxiy (Abu Sahiy), the 5th largest market in Central Asia, was created out of shipping containers in 2006, providing traditional traders with new business opportunities. At its peak in 2012 the market had close to 3,000 shops, with close to 10,000 shoppers visiting the market daily and has become an essential part of the local economy.

Speaking to EURACTIV, Abu Saxiy’s founder, Timur Tillyaev said: “Originally, the land we bought for creating a market had empty shipping containers on it, which we initially wanted to dispose of to build regular shops. Building new shops was going to be extremely expensive, so we came up with the idea to convert the containers into fully functionable shops. To ensure high safety standards, we installed windows and light glass doors, high-alert fire systems and air ventilation systems.”

“We discovered that this was also an extremely convenient and cost-efficient option for the merchants and traders which helped them thrive and create growth for their businesses over the years. Today, it is exciting to see how shipping container markets have become a new trend for businesses worldwide, including Europe and the United States,” Tillyaev added.

In Central Asian countries, markets like Dordoi and Abu Saxiy are essential parts of local economies and their founders have been creative in how they used resources available to them. Europe is unlikely to match the scale of eastern markets, but the pandemic has shown that many small European retailers and restaurant-owners face the same challenges: optimising space, minimising costs and operating in open-air shopping spaces. With their slick design, flexibility and cheaper rent, the trend for pop-up converted-container markets looks set for a bright future.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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