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From pop up to permanence? The true value of the pop up

Springing up in car parks & city centres, under railway arches and on roof tops, brands established and fresh seem to be ‘popping up’ in ever more usual places. As the ‘pop up’ moves from rebellious sibling to more established player we decided to take a closer look at the real value of an impermanent branded retail space. What follows is a series of posts on the pop up. The first by beauty & culture blogger and LAB summer intern, Hollie Bradbury, which is an insiders perspective, on what makes a ‘pop up’ tick, taken at first hand from an 8 week ‘residency’ in the ‘Made in Leeds’ pop up retail store. The second by another LAB summer intern, history & culture writer Wout Vergauwen, which explores the strategic role of the pop up and looks at the big question, just how valuable is the temporary retail concept?

The true value of the pop up

Wout Vergauwen - Assistant Producer and history & culture writer

It’s about experience first, rather than products and priced goods. So if you build a compelling experience that basically draws people in, doesn’t feel like selling, it just feels very welcoming.” – Simon Byerley, Creative Director, LAB

Inspired by Japanese consumer culture, which is driven by the need of rare and limited-edition products, pop-up stores sprang up across the American Westcoast in the early twenty first century. Subsequently, high-end fashion retailers such as Comme des Garçons adopted this concept which led to the spreading of pop-ups all over the world. With a predicted turnover of £2.1 billion for 2014 in the UK alone, it is interesting to see how basic and temporary retailers who break traditional retail rules (obscure locations, temporary sitings, raw looking interiors, ‘one off’ merchandising, often unclear or no clear branding, …) manage to reach such sales figures. For retailers, pop-up stores are becoming an increasingly lucrative sector, but consumers also get a lot out of it.

A retailers perspective

Following the Great Recession, local stores went bankrupt at a fast speed and a great deal of retail areas became vacant for a long time. Even today, one out of eight stores in the UK is sitting vacant. As a result, building owners became more disposed towards short lets, giving start-ups (and bigger brands) the opportunity to literally pop-up for a couple of weeks before having to terminate their lease early. Accordingly, pop-ups are the ultimate low-risk outlet for existing companies test new products, adapt what they are doing, gauge future demands. Meanwhile, start-ups see the pop-up as the financially responsible thing to do. Successful ones, such as Tom Dixon’s Dock Kitchen Restaurant in West-London’s Portobello Dock, might ultimately turn into permanent stores or restaurants.


A consumer perspective

Not only are pop-ups a great multi-purpose outlet for all kinds of companies, advantages for customers are multiple as well.  First of all, pop-ups still do what they were initially supposed to do: add to the exclusivity of the product. During its lifespan, the pop-up is essentially a ‘limited edition’ on its own, encouraging customers to a spontaneous purchase. Shopping in a pop-up not only allows customers to distinguish themselves with exclusive products, but the discovery of it also keeps them in the know and enhances their social currency. Secondly, pop-ups have developed into the latest tool to increase brand awareness. For traditional retailers, a location off Main Street can help to enlarge their customer base whereas for online-retailers such as designer discounter Bluefly.com, it is the ideal way to engage directly with customers and redirect them to their website.


The attractiveness

While these reasons show why a pop-up is feasible, the massive predicted turnover is explained by another factor – its popularity. By nature, pop-up stores are surprising and exciting. This tends to introduce people to a new off-High Street location which in turn thrives and creates the neighborhood. More than bringing people to that location, pop-ups bring like-minded people together. In a way, the pop-up becomes a focal point for all those looking for new and unique products and experiences.

 All over the world, this trend can be seen within different sectors from corporate to ‘one off’. In late 2013, American Express and Delta Airlines teamed up and launched a fashion pop-up mall at the Alki Gallery in downtown Seattle to promote the ‘small shop’ innitiative. Over various weekends, the organizers brought together fashion lovers, bloggers, home designers, and many more in order to drive shoppers back to local merchants across the US. Considering the food industry, Street feast in London’s East Village is a prime example. The street foodie fiesta organized by the Real Food Festival brings together foodlovers for fourteen consecutive weekends, before disappearing for ever again. For a unique moment, French pastries, Italian ice-cream, Indian Chicken Masala and many more dishes are offered in a complementary fashion by local caterers such as The French, Il Gelato and The Indians Next Door.

The LAB perspective

With pop-up stores having reached such an audience and generating billion pound revenues, might they have lost their sense of exclusivity? Having replaced that with a focus on the delivery of experience, it is worth wondering whether they do appeal as an experience, rather than a pop-up store, and whether consumers will tire of them? Even though the evolution is not yet complete, it is clear that pop-ups have taken on a more strategic role versus their original concept. Yet, the question remains what happens when pop-ups have become mainstream, where might they go next?

Of the many possibilities, three seem to present a view on this:

1.    Pop-ups may become an opportunity for temporary brand collaboration as was the case in Seattle’s Alki gallery and London’s street feast. Brands targeting a similar audience can use the pop-up concept to attract a great deal of customers and unite them in a unique pop-up community.

2.    Pop-ups can go high-tech, becoming ever more inventive and varied in the way they integrate existing technology, and new tech trends as they emerge. Online retailers such as Net-a-Porter with their window-shop in 2011, and Ebay with its entire digital storefront in New York City last spring, point to this possible future.  

3.    A third path might follow the example set by many nascent food service offerings as they develop their concept – is ‘the residency’ within more established branded environments.

In this space, anything can happen. Judging by the creativity and inventiveness of today’s new concepts, and given the usefulness and financial viability of the pop-up as a legitimate retail route to market, we are sure we will see many more versions of the impermanent retail space to come. Certainly, one thing is clear: the pop up is here to stay.