The pop-up is a curious beast, and more prevalent than ever in 2016. In fact, if you’re not familiar with this short-stay retail model, chances are you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years. They're everywhere, and they seem to be picking up speed.
From Kanye West’s "I Feel Like Pablo" retail venture launching in twenty one global locations earlier this year to the California cafe that opened on the 20th anniversary of Tupac’s death, and with increasing consideration from both the high street and the high end, it’s fair to say temporary retail is having an epochal moment.
But just why is it that we have such a fervent appetite for this here-today, gone-tomorrow model? Well, there are a range of factors, from economics through to story-telling.
Let's take a look:
The Bottom Line
We can locate the roots of the modern day pop-up twelve years ago in Berlin, with the opening of Comme Des Garçons’ first Guerrilla store.
At the time, the pop-up was a rarer beast, and the term itself even less common. For their Guerrilla store, CDG were transparent in their objectives. They wanted to open shops in yet-to-be-gentrified areas for minimal cost, selling current and past merchandise. This was a rejection of the niceties of conventional retail. "Guerrilla" wasn’t simply a nifty marketing tag, it was perfectly fitting given the swift and mercantile nature of the shops.
Although the Guerrilla stores seemed to be a reaction to the excesses of flagship retail, there was a sound business sense that underlined the strategy. Pop-up shops allow brands and retailers to generate hype that assimilates around the new, and simultaneously rid themselves of excess stock. Merchandise that would otherwise be contributing to a storage problem suddenly becomes a surefire earner.
The importance of this is not to be understated: without their rapid-fire earning potential, these ventures would be a non-starter. And when you’re turning old stock into cash, while freeing up space, it’s a no-brainer.
The Not-so-Small Matter of Rent
Let’s turn to the subject of rent. The ballpark cost of commercial leases has been rising in major cities for quite some time. Prime real estate is nigh on unaffordable for all but the most affluent of brands, and regardless of the fact that pop-up space is abundant in major centers, price setting still seems to be dictated to brands, rather than the other way around.
Landlords, as ever, hold a position of power because they’ve agglomerated prime retail positions, and finding a physical location for your brand is difficult enough in terms of fitting the feel of the venture, let alone thinking about committing to a sizable lease.
Pop-ups by virtue of their very nature don’t suffer so much from this problem. They’re quick and the commitment is far easier to manage, especially for smaller brands.
This is further reinforced by the emergence of companies specializing in short-term rents, such as Appear Here and Storefront. These tech businesses connect brands to landlords, and make it even easier to hire a space for just a few days.
However, with the rise of these companies there has been no readjustment of prices. Price setting should theoretically be more accurate because of the increased information provided by websites and greater number of short-term lets on the market. Rather than prices going down, though, they've gone up, making it prohibitive for true bedroom brands to have pop-ups in central locations in major cities.
Unsurprisingly, it’s not just the small independents who are creating pop-ups. Burberry recently hosted Makers House in London’s Soho, a pop-up that celebrated the brand’s history and relevant makers. Given that a brand like Burberry has an infrastructure to rid itself of excess stock already (with outlet stores dotted around the globe), the pop-up model clearly has other benefits.
One such benefit is the communication value pop-up stores are imbued with. Simply by being novel, the model attracts attention. The time constraints of a pop-up are incentive for consumers to not only come down and spend, but to talk about the brand on social media. The exclusivity isn’t simply the product being sold, but the amount of time the shop is around.
In this manner, pop-ups are able to help brands trade in the currency of hype – but a quantifiable hype that is measured in Instagram follows and hashtag mentions.
If you’ve created a buzzy pop-up, there’s likely to be a queue of hardy souls in camping chairs waiting for your wares to go on sale in the morning. It would be wrong to say that pop-ups are symptomatic of queuing culture, but the contributing effect of the queue must be taken into account. Having a queue round the block for a release reaffirms the brand’s status in their fans’ eyes. If all of these people are queuing for something, then it must be of value, right?
Many of us will have seen videos of roving reporters vox-popping with queue regulars. Whilst these videos are about unusual characters, they’re also great exposure for brands.
The communication value of the pop-up doesn’t end with simply being new – traditional stores often have clear guidelines by which they are to be merchandised.
Temporary spaces are sometimes treated as exceptions, and allowed to be more loose with their merchandising. Makers House, whilst still looking very much like a Burberry exercise, was allowed to have its own unique feel. Brands are able to use pop-ups as a testing ground. Art directors who might be used to a sort of mindless consistency can let loose with their imaginations and create more attention-seeking visuals.
However, even with looser constrictions, the concept of a pop-up is in danger of becoming stale due to the sheer number that exist these days. It’s no longer considered innovative for brands to do pop-ups, and though they might allow visual creativity, the business creativity is minimal.
These days, pop-ups are less a vehicle for disrupting major players, as an outlet for the major players themselves.
We’ve already looked at the fact that pop-ups are cheap and flexible ventures. In a business landscape that is increasingly affected by globalization, companies need to find ways of appealing to local markets, ensuring that each market feels that the brand has relevance there. Since pop-ups are comparatively easy to set up, opening multiple locations is rather achievable.
Here, Comme Des Garçons were once again ahead of the trend, opening numerous Guerrilla stores within a short period of time. This tactic was repeated by Kanye for his Pablo release, which hit 21 cities simultaneously, with exclusive product specific to each location. Comme’s pop-ups allowed the brand to reach audiences in places as diverse as Athens, Beirut, Reykjavik and Singapore, to name but a few.
It’s important to consider the choice of these far-flung locations as outposts for the brand. Sure, they are each home to a cosmopolitan populace, but they’re hardly epicenters of fashion. The pop-up model provides a dynamic and mobile entry point into the local retail market, with the hype around opening enough to shift units and raise cultural value rapidly. Pablo pop-ups sprung up in similarly unexpected locales for the same reason.
Whilst Comme Des Garçons was creating new audiences through their pop-ups before the advent of social media, nowadays it has become easier to assess demand via the opinionated communities who use these online channels, and pop-ups can be planned accordingly.
That’s not to say, however, that in today’s landscape the short-stay model relies solely on the internet for success; most pop-ups are only truly experienced IRL. Just like the traditional storefront has always provided, pop-up spaces become community hubs, allowing fans and shoppers to meet like-minds, and to express support for the brand, albeit for a short time.
It's About Story-Telling
With high street retailers now operating at enormous scales, it’s difficult for smaller companies to compete with their economies of scale. Anyone beneath that level finds themselves competing in terms of value added – and, for many, this value added comes from story-telling.
Pop-ups have become integral to communicating brand stories, connecting with fans at a local level, and playing into ideas of exclusivity and a collective desire for being "in the know." They’re more than spaces for greasing the wheels of commerce; they give brands' creators an opportunity to sink their teeth into interesting projects.
Of course, the execution of pop-ups can be hit and miss. It’s not all glitz and glamour, and there have been more than a few that have operated at a decidedly low-rent level. But when pop-ups are done right, this dynamic retail strategy can be simultaneously good for business and make for good stories – qualities that are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Speaking of retail, check out Highsnobiety's Crowns: Best Store of 2016.