Monday, 6 June 2016

Forget the Meir, Convoi is where it’s at in Antwerp

Tucked neatly behind Waagnatie, on the banks of the Scheldt, you’ll find Antwerp’s newest and hippest shopping centre. Convoi has been created from over 50 shipping containers, which provide retail space to 40 businesses selling fashion, food, and design items for you and your home.

But there are no chains here. At Convoi, the tenants are mostly young and local entrepreneurs looking to try out an idea or product. “I wanted to make it as simple as possible,” says Kim Soeffers, the driving force behind the project. “Convoi gives them a space to test and evolve. Each container comes ready to use with lighting, wi-fi and a selection of fittings. All they have to do is bring their products.”

Another advantage for entrepreneurs is the flexible rental contract. Containers can be hired for periods ranging from a weekend to a year, with prices starting at €400 a week. For customers, the short contracts create a dynamic shopping experience that changes from week to week.
One such shop, Float, offers scarves, bags, jewellery and accessories created mainly by Belgian designers. “We have a shop in the centre of Antwerp, but I’ve taken a container for a week to test the concept,” says its owner, Ambrosius Smets. “As a small business, we like to take as little risk as possible, and Convoi gives us that option.”
Soeffers is very clear about the type of tenants she wants to attract to Convoi. “Candidates need three things: to be an entrepreneur, to have the guts to follow their dream, to have a VAT number,” she says. “I don’t believe you can consider yourself an entrepreneur if you are sitting on a payroll. You need to go for it, and Convoi makes that easy.”
Reema Shah, designer and director of Kapriss World, fell in love with the concept of Convoi as soon as she heard about it. “I believe it will attract the younger generation, and there are so many different shops,” she says. “I’m offering my new line of silver jewellery for two weeks. If it works well, I will do it again with a new collection.”
Another container is home to 24 Bottles, a line of reusable steel water bottles and accessories from Italy. Lennart Creël, who distributes this and other brands, sees Convoi as an opportunity to experiment. “We want to know how the end consumer reacts to our products and build brand ambassadors,” he says. “We’ve initially taken the space for five weeks. After that we might feature another of our brands.”
The containers are positioned in groups of five. “I designed it this way so that shop owners can share experiences and work together,” says Soeffers. “The idea is to cross-fertilise ideas and learn from each other. I also encourage the bigger brands to share their knowledge and advice with the smaller businesses.”
ZenithOptimedia, a media agency based in Brussels, sounds like a strange tenant for a shopping centre, but account director Joke De Block begs to differ. “We tried to get some of our clients interested in Convoi, but larger companies don’t understand the concept of a pop-up,” she says. “So we’re using Convoi as a base where we can invite them to experience it and see the opportunities.”
Like all good retail centres, Convoi includes a number of places where you can grab a coffee or get something to eat. There’s also a bar where you can sit and watch ships pass by on the Scheldt.
Convoi will stay in its current location on Rijnkaai until March 2018 before moving somewhere else in Belgium. “Our aim is to have a series of Convoi centres around Europe so the entrepreneurs can travel from one to the other,” explains Soeffers. “What doesn’t work in Antwerp might be a best-seller in Barcelona. People need to look further than their own markets, and we’ll give them that opportunity.”
Photo courtesy Convoi
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