Looking for, and finding, inspiration in a Las Vegas container park

          Laura Heller

Something surprising happened last week while I was in Las Vegas for the International CES—the most interesting products and exhibits were found, not on the convention show floor, but right in the middle of downtown Las Vegas where Zappos had opened a pop-up shop.

It was the first foray into brick-and-mortar for the online retailer and like most of what Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh does, it was fresh, fun and filled with new technology. It was also near Zappos' headquarters in downtown Las Vegas, a rather seedy part of that city undergoing a significant transformation.

In 2010, Hsieh pledged to help revitalize downtown Las Vegas and since then, there have been noticeable changes, some of them retail related. Hsieh has since stepped down as head of the initiative, but continues to be involved in developing the area, recently announcing plans for an Airstream hotel consisting of a collection of the metal campers.

The Zappos pop-up shop was located in a former motel and casino. The casino itself was gutted and transformed into a series of shops. The former adjacent parking lot was turned into a winter wonderland complete with ice rink, massive Christmas tree, beverages and games.

And beyond that, a container park built almost entirely of shipping containers.

Repurposing shipping containers into modular homes is a somewhat new and fashionable building concept, but Las Vegas has built a kind of mall out of the things. It's a multi-story jumble of containers in different configurations and orientations. Each one houses a different retail and hospitality concept unique to the city.

The entire park functions as a business incubator, offering retailers an opportunity to set up shop more affordably than a traditional location. Each is essentially a pop-up shop and lab where new merchants can learn the ropes. Several are operated by local artists and feature handmade or otherwise unique merchandise.

At least one told me that the owner/designer had just signed a lease on a more permanent location on the Las Vegas strip. A success story.

The dining options too, are unique. Each with a sizable outdoor space. There's a cupcake shop, candy store, BBQ shack, seafood concept, wine and cheese spot, even a vegan concept.

The entire collection was constructed around a center courtyard with a play area for kids, the components of which were also created from shipping containers. There was even an open air event space for live performances.

What a great way for new proprietors to cut their teeth. And an even better way to revitalize a rather derelict part of town.

It's exciting to see innovation in retail and there are lessons to be learned from the effort. From Zappos and its pop-up experiment to the container park, sorely needed new ideas are bubbling up.  

And as retailers and vendors gather in New York this week for NRF's BIG Show, all will be looking for inspiration, actionable information and connections. I hope they find the kind of creative energy complete with success stories that I found in downtown Las Vegas. -Laura