Should You Have a Pop-Up Shop?

If you think pop-up shops are, well, popping up all over the place, you’re right. They’re short, they’re sweet, and, when done correctly, they make an impression long after they’ve left the building.

When it comes to cooking up tantalizing consumer experiences, retailers of all stripes are embracing an old idea that, paired with technology, feels new again: the pop-up store.

The concept of the temporary shop, which was born in the late 1990s in Los Angeles, is so popular it’s baked into the modern consumer experience—as ubiquitous as markdowns and email blasts. According to IBISWorld, the number of pop-up stores in the United States grew 16 percent from 2009 to 2013.

What’s behind the pop-up boom? The format’s potential to reach new demographics sans serious investment may be its most obvious charm. But today’s retailers are also using ephemeral shops as labs for the deluge of new technologies driving retailing, from apps to social selling to radio-frequency identification tagging. Brands such as BaubleBar, Warby Parker, and Kate Spade have hosted splashy tech-ified pop-ups that incorporate iPads, touch screens, and ­geolocation technology, allowing companies to “push” sale notifications to smartphones based on where shoppers are lingering inside a store.

Pop-ups can double as meaningful test sites for future brick-and-mortar locations. Jewelry designer Pippa Small, for example, debuted a pop-up shop in lower Manhattan in April 2013 with the mission of gauging local interest in her collection (at press time she was still looking for a New York City space).

Actress Eva Mendes feted her New York & Co. collection in March with a short-term shop at the Beverly Center in Los Angeles. (Angela Weiss/Getty Images for New York & Co.)

Pop-ups can also be the perfect place to introduce new product lines and collections. “We’re always testing out different neighborhoods in different cities for BaubleBar [retail stores],” says Ashley Fidel, senior manager of business development and partnerships for the New York City–based fashion jewelry retailer. “Even more so, we use pop-ups as testing grounds for new products and technology. At our SoHo pop-up last summer, we partnered with over 50 brands, and so many of them have turned into longer, larger partnerships for us.”

Still, driving sales and drumming up excitement around a brand—the dual raison d’être for many pop-ups over the past two decades—certainly make the concept worth considering. “There’s something so fun and different about a temporary store,” notes Fidel. “It’s just a great way to bring in traffic.”

Temp stores can also reward brand devotees who live in areas where online sales or wholesaling efforts are robust, but a brand store isn’t present.

BaubleBar’s downtown New York City pop-up was only the beginning; now the online brand has carved out a spot in 117 Nordstrom stores indefinitely.

Artisanal fragrance brand Juniper Ridge debuted a pop-up last year inside the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, location of one of its retail partners, Fellow Barber, for that very reason. “We wanted…to tell our story to people in New York City,” says Obi Kaufmann, the company’s chief storyteller. “Ten to 15 percent of our revenue comes from that area.”

Of course, popping up is not without its pitfalls.

Online jewelry retailer Gemvara’s summer pop-up on Boston’s Newbury Street “reinforced for me that the retail presence wasn’t necessary,” says CEO Janet Holian. She considers the experience a success (and says that sales were strong), but “we think people are really trusting of shopping online with us. The store confirmed that.”

And while the costs of kitting out a temp space can be cheap-ish, they’re almost always more than initially estimated, say retailers. “Don’t underestimate the costs of the build-out,” says Kaufmann. “Even though it’s just a pop-up, you really have to put a pretty penny into the build-out to take full advantage of the [experience].”

Expense is only one of the considerations when planning for a pop-up. Here are a handful of others for your strategy notes:

Create Clear Goals

Pop-ups are fun for consumers and hard work for retailers, and their fruits can vary wildly—so going in knowing what you want to achieve is critical. “It’s a limited experience; you have to have clear goals that are limited,” says Kaufmann. “Does the pop-up generate revenue or media, or both? And the parameters for success should be defined well in advance. We really thought about the customer experience…as opposed to haphazardly putting products on the shelf.”

Find a Great Location

When choosing a spot for your pop-up, don’t sign on for a destination that shoppers have to go out of their way to discover—you won’t be open long enough to be discovered by many.

Instead, find a storefront in a busy part of town that your target demographic already traverses. “An ideal location would be a space that has good pedestrian traffic,” says jewelry designer Mimi So, who last year hosted a pop-up inside New York City’s Erno Laszlo Institute, a skin-care spa with a near century-old pedigree.

As a way to test the New York City retail waters, British designer Pippa Small brought her luxe, bohemian jewels to East Village boutique LF8 for a week in April.

Inexpensive spaces are there for the taking, but when deciding between high-end and higher-end, spring for the more upscale spot. Holian says the steep price of renting space on bustling Newbury Street paid off. “I think if we had chosen the less expensive space we considered, we would have questioned the traffic as a [factor].”

A good way to nab a space on a street you typically wouldn’t be able to afford is to call realtors listed in available storefronts, she says. “Landlords are often open to a pop-up because they want to rent the space, and a pop-up may drive a permanent retailer to the space.”

Retailers in the United States may soon have an app to help them find venues. Spacified, an app currently serving only Europe, connects businesses with landlords wanting to rent spots temporarily.

Pop-ups at New York City’s South Street Seaport have come, appropriately enough, in the form of shipping containers. (Randy Duchaine/Alamy)

Consider Partnering With an Existing Store

Popping up inside another store is perhaps the most hassle-free way to stage a temporary retail experience—and can be an ideal format for jewelry retailers, whose products partner organically with a number of consumer categories, including apparel and spas/salons.

Mimi So says her pop-up experience at Erno Laszlo was “fun and exciting because the fit was synergistic between Erno Laszlo’s ­history of Hollywood glamour…and Mimi So’s artisanal approach.”

Doug Schwartz, owner of Birmingham, Mich., store Complex, which hosts a revolving lineup of pop-ups, says a major upside to partnering with an established retailer is the hearty cross-promotion that can occur, generating a boatload of exposure for both businesses. But, he warns, “the retailer and the pop-up need to count on each other and create a get-it-while-it-lasts situation—this is really key.”

Men’s clothing e-tailer JackThreads went brick-and-mortar in NYC for two days in 2012. (Richard Levine/Alamy)

Set a Timeline

How long should your pop-up last? It depends on the location, the consumer response, and what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re test-driving an iPad-based point-of-sale system, for instance, you may need a month or two to collect data. The same goes for introducing a product to a demographic that’s famous for generating word-of-mouth sales; you want to be open long enough to reap those rewards.

At Complex, Schwartz likes to run pop-ups for one to three months. And if you’re leasing an empty spot, a month may be the shortest time span you’ll be able to swing. But if your goal is whipping loyal clients into a get-it-before-it’s-gone froth, a weekend could fit the bill. “We’ve found there’s not an exact recipe,” says BaubleBar’s Fidel. “It’s about keeping the merchandise and the experience fresh.”

Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle website Goop materialized for a week at L.A.’s rustic-chic Brentwood Country Mart. (Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Goop)

Create a Promotion Strategy

Central to pulling off a rewarding pop-up experience, say retailers, is promoting it to within an inch of its gloriously brief life.

BaubleBar builds online campaigns for its temp spaces, which often offer chances for shoppers to directly engage with the brand. For an early Nordstrom pop-up (the retailer is now in all Nordstrom units), BaubleBar solicited votes for a favorite fan-generated necklace, then put the winning design into production and sold it at the pop-up.

For her Erno Laszlo stint, Mimi So says her company “sent emails to all our clients, ­editors, retailers, and the neighborhood. And since we had a beauty partner, we had beauty publications tagging us.”

Remember that heroic efforts on the digital marketing front will likely have long-lasting effects on your social media engagement—another good reason to pop up in the first place. When Juniper Ridge popped up in Brooklyn, “we got about 60,000 new followers across all of our platforms,” says Kaufmann. “It’s like, once the train leaves the station, it’s hard to stop it. And we’re still enjoying that.”

(Top: Silicon Valley Stock/Alamy) 

Fast Fashion

Five modern pop-ups that made a lasting impression

Brothers’ suitcase store 
In 2013, Swedish fashion company Brothers hosted a series of pop-ups in Sweden with a giant custom-made suitcase as a surreal ­movable kiosk. The luggage was opened on its side to reveal racks and shelves of merch.

Harrods toasts the ’20s 
Landmark ­London department store Harrods turned its underground tasting room and wine shop into a Great Gatsby–esque cocktail lounge last year—complete with jazz trios, canapés, and cocktail-making classes.

Kate Spade Saturday’s shoppable windows 
In 2013, the spin-off brand installed four 24-hour window shops around Manhattan that enabled ordering via touch screen, with delivery to the five boroughs guaranteed within the hour.

Boffo Building Fashion + Michael Bastian 
In late 2013, design firm ­Bittertang created a groundbreaking space for fashion brand Michael Bastian out of hay and 400 pounds of beeswax.

J. Crew’s CFDA capsule shop 
In its fourth year collaborating on collections with Council of Fashion Designers of America/Vogue Fashion Fund finalists, J. Crew staged an epic pop-up in July in its downtown Manhattan store, proving the potent power of synergistic partnerships. —EV 

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