Pop-up grown up

The Color Factory, San Francisco

Pop-up shops used to be ‘in fillers’: a strategy to fill a vacancy until you got a ‘real’ tenant. That’s not the case anymore. Pop-up shops have matured to be highly experiential and more embedded in the public realm as a real part of the retail community scene. 

Once a guerrilla marketing tactic, pop-up stores are now deeply integrated in today’s retail landscape, becoming a core strategy for many brands. We are seeing pop-up formats that are highly experiential, feature smart technology, and that carry a stronger presence in the public realm – be it through infrastructure or programming.

Arguably, we could pin the tipping point of pop-up retail to two main factors. The first is the GFC, which saw many businesses go into administration leaving vacant shopfronts and a palpable sense of decline. In this context, pop-ups were a makeshift, low-cost solution to give new businesses a leg-up and revitalise struggling precincts. The second is the explosion of e-commerce and the desire for online brands to have a temporary bricks-and-mortar presence, to connect with their community, drive sales, and test new product in a low-risk environment.

Now combined with the rise of the experience economy, the pop-up phenomenon has begun to mature. According to Vogue magazine, Pop-up Republic, an end-to-end service provider of pop-ups, values the industry at USD$50 billion. This includes fashion, beauty and celebrity merchandise stunts – and points to the fact that consumers still want to spend in person, but in more novel and experiential surrounds. Municipalities are taking note too, and integrating pop-ups as part of broader precinct strategies to boost local businesses.

To explore the implications of the experience economy through brands, the pop-up presents the perfect vehicle to create a fleeting retail moment with maximum impact and advocacy.

Fine shoe brand Everlane is a company doing just this. Their Room Service pop-up saw the brand taking over penthouse suites in the most hip and stylish hotels in New York, San Francisco and LA. More than just a ‘try on’ experience, customers could book a private appointment to view the collection and test their shoes in the suite’s plush surrounds. In keeping with luxury room service, customers were offered a menu of curated treats from famed local dining establishments. For instance, the Manhattan instalment was hosted by the Ace Hotel’s Loft Suite and catered by the hotel’s The Breslin restaurant. This is also an example pop-ups leveraging what online can’t: highly personal service.

In a more playful instalment, Everlane’s London pop-up saw the creation of a Barbican-inspired playscape, created by set design studio Robert Storey. Taking cues from the verdant conservatory, customers were invited to check their shoes at the door, climb, play and discover the collection whilst barefoot among the lush surrounds.

Similar to Everlane’s partnership with a renowned design studio, we are seeing other pop-ups leverage collaborations with leading arts groups, both to create visually stunning scapes and capture the studio’s cultured fan base.

No stranger to such an arrangement is fashion brand COS, and their ongoing partnership with art-architecture collective Snarkitecture. A recent pop-up saw Snarkitecture create a very intriguing space for the brand in Downtown Los Angeles, successfully drawing the neighbourood’s artistic crowd. COS’s collection was reflected throughout the space through steel cut-outs of their signature silhouettes, and a palette of subtle gradations of pink and red tones. All design decisions contributed to a subdued yet immersive experience. Where pop-ups were originally about driving sales, this is an exemplar of the delivery of a brand story and brand experience.

Pop-up stores are also incredibly powerful for online brands to gain earned media. Still a low-risk vehicle for emerging brands to test product and meet their community, they are now maturing into a platform that connects with aligned influencers to generate Instagram-worthy content.

A key exemplar is’s recent pop-up at Story in Manhattan, New York. Story is a retail concept store that functions as a gallery, hosting a rotation of different brands presenting their unique narrative and product., a discount online retailer, used its residency to curate a series of events with key local influencers, to build its cultural credibility and drive online sales. For instance, an evening saw cosmetic brand Bobbi Brown and lifestyle blog Refinery 29 present a talk on how fresh food can be used for beauty, inside and out. All products mentioned were available for purchase on Though food and products were displayed in store, any inquiry for purchase was directed online, as this is’s sole channel and the pop-up’s key purpose.

Another online stalwart changing the game is Etsy. While the brand’s pop-ups have been the size of small to medium boutiques, we are seeing it shift to the ‘mass pop-up moment’ in a bid to mimic its online experience. The Etsy Community market did just this. Appropriately held in the Brewery Yard in the heart of Chippendale’s creative community in Sydney, customers were able to peruse the arty wares of more than 70 stallholders. This gave the pop-up a breadth more akin to shopping the online store whilst providing the traditional market experience of chatting, browsing and good-humoured haggling.

Pop-ups are also taking up a bigger presence in the public realm through increased duration, programming or built structures. A key exemplar is The Color Factory in San Francisco. For the month of August a two-storey building was taken over by local art and design collective Oh Happy Day. The building’s facade displayed vivid stripes (temporary, but a decent investment), whilst the interior offered 15 original exhibitions that presented highly ‘Instagrammable’ moments. Among them are a holographic prism room, a display of 10,000 colourful ribbons suspended from the ceiling, and a glass-walled balloon room. Where this pop-up breaks the mould is the programming it has created with the rest of the city. Participants can visit 17 other colour experiences offered by local businesses. For instance, a pink drink can be sought from bubble tea specialists Boba Guys, or a custom temporary tattoo from the Moth and Dagger tattoo parlour, as well as a venture on a trail of secret wall murals.

Pop-ups can also connect with local businesses and communities by being a platform for such collectives.

New Form is a curated market pop-up that taps into the trend-aware creative community of Enmore in Sydney. Launching this October, it will be as much a cultural event as a market, having a designated curator that will handpick the finest local streetwear and accessory brands, also giving creative direction to visual artists, installations and live music.

There will be a new curator for each quarterly market to ensure an evolving cultural experience. New Form also taps into a desire for social experiences that are inclusive and an alternative to drinking and partying; when paired with arts and culture, retail pop-up is a strategic vehicle to achieve this.

The extended duration of pop-ups is another notable change. In an article with Digiday, Melissa Gonzalez, chief pop-up architect for retail agency The Lionesque Group, said that in 2017, the average duration of a pop-up increased from one to six months to about six months to a year. This is being coupled with a bigger investment in physical infrastructure, with pop-ups being embedded in the urban fabric and leveraging smart technology as part of precinct-wide strategies.

This is manifesting in London’s retail heartland of Oxford Street, with The New West End Company leveraging smart technology to counteract the area’s hang-ups of congestion, noise and air pollution. The street is piloting embedded air purifiers, green space and curved seating for visitors to catch a quiet break. Not missing an opportunity to capture spend are a series of retail pods built into the street. These host an evolving set of emerging businesses that would otherwise not afford the premium rents of Oxford Street, thus adding diversity to the precinct. To measure the project’s success are embedded ground panels that track foot traffic. The data collected will influence iterations and build the case for replicating further smart retail streets.

On a more futuristic level, but by no means fictitious, pop-ups are also becoming autonomous and increasingly mobile. One such kind is the Moby Mart, an artificial intelligence-powered, self-driving convenience store. The mart is the result of a collaboration between Wheelys, Hefei Technical University in China, and Himalafy, a tech company focusing on unstaffed retail solutions. It is proposed that a customer can summon the mart to a designated spot, select their goods, scan, and purchase all via the app, and at the convenience of 24-hour availability. The solar-powered mart is currently operating as a prototype in Shanghai, and will rely on government legislation to be deployed.

Key provocations for innovating with pop-up retail:

Reinvent under-utilised space

How: Review your centre with fresh eyes looking for under-utilised areas that are unique, distinct and would elicit a sense of discovery. Consider these for the location of a pop-up that would enable an unexpected and memorable experience.

Leverage local design talent and create an immersive experience

How: Consider the design of the pop-up a drawcard in itself. Develop an EOI and design brief for an immersive, playful or artistic space inviting design professionals, from leading heavyweights to edgy newcomers.

Leverage your community’s niche interests and harness their influencers

How: What type of pop-up is your market interested in? Consider the extended cultural programming this pop-up could lend itself to. For instance, a homewares pop-up stretches to DIY styling, entertainment advice and workshops. Research the key trend-setters that could host such events and draw crowds to your centre.

Be inclusive and bring your existing tenants on board

How: Though pop-ups present a point of difference and unique program, maximise the buzz by extending programming to involve complementary retailers within your centre. This can be through novel, one-off, and aligned product experiences.

Seek smart solutions to challenges in your centre or local area

How: Audit and assess your centre’s pain points. Consider what needs to be done differently and how a pop-up activation can assist in generating a positive buzz whilst trialling a solution. Consider how smart technology could play a role in this and capture data to measure success.

About the author

David Grant

David Grant has extensive experience developing design and marketing solutions for some of Australia’s most valuable property destinations and physical assets. David and his team have gained a reputation for providing the insights through research which ensure that places develop a competitive advantage, allowing them to command a price premium and achieve financial returns above the market. Prior to the inception of Brickfields, David worked in design and strategic capacities for global brand consultancies Landor Associates and FutureBrand in Australia and the United States.

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