Pop-Up Hasn’t Just Popped Up!

Now you see it. Now you don’t. Hardly a new phenomena in retail.

The critics would argue that the more ruthless landlords have been creating this scenario for centuries by sending tenants broke through aggressive rent hikes. If you’ve ever watched the purveyors of really good fake watches and handbags you’ll have seen pop-up at it’s best. Albeit that the movement and energy are created by the illegality and the thrill of the chase.

And then there’s the town hall or village square clearance sale. In-frequent, un-predictable but none-the-less an immersive retail adventure.

But what has happened to make this the latest hot topic? Like all good things in retail it’s a new take on an old idea. But this time around it is having some interesting twists.

“Pop-up retail” combines a couple of retail trends. The consumer driven trend to “discover” something new and different rather than shopping the local version of the same old – same old. The trend by landlords to make casual leasing space accessible and/or take short-term revenue from distress space. The business trend to generate cut-through and inspire brand and product evangelists. And the financial reality that showcasing something new – in itself a risky venture – can be done with more savvy and style at a lower cost.

Comme de Garcon really drew the fashion media pack’s attention with its early stores in Germany and the meat packing district of New York in 2002. And make no mistake – the media is one of the primary target audiences for pop-up retail. Comme de Garcon didn’t invent the idea – they just executed it really well. A fit out that cost less than US$2,500. Chicken feed rent. The money was spent on the “word of mouth” publicity that generated “chic cache” for the brand and was fully exploited in the main line stores far from the pop-up retail heat generator.

As a stand alone store its return ratios blow the Prada SoHo temple of uber-cool to shreds. At a rumoured US$38 million for it’s fit out though, a $2 shop produces more profit per m2 than the Broadway Prada store.

But that’s not the point.

The main game of pop-up retail is about creating brand momentum.
And that’s where the next twist comes in. Once the realm of smaller players or retailers either in distress or operating opportunistically, the latest version of “pop-up retail” is not only legitimate but becoming main-stream. One of the world’s great masters at pop-up retail in its contemporary guise is Target USA.

They used a pop-up retail store to launch their Isaac MIzrahi at Target line. They developed the “off the back of a truck” sale with a truck that had a modified drop down side. It rolled onto the streets of Manhattan, pulled up at the curb, dropped the side and began selling. It sold out in less than 30 minutes and drove off into the sunset.

Comme de Garcon continues the idea. The longest lasting pop-up retail store for them stays for less than 6 months or one extended “season”.

Selfridges have now adopted pop-up retail to launch new brands or new product concepts within their “big, hip house of brands” strategy. And they back it up with a viral marketing campaign for each new pop-up idea which drives the early adopters to “find it first” in the Oxford Street store.

Pop-up thrives on discovery and decay. Those that seek find it and tell everyone else. But the very spark of discovery leads to a finite shelf life. The product or brand or store concept or service then needs to move on to a more developed model better constructed to exploit the demand created by the use of pop-up retail in the first place.

Can it be replicated in Australia? Absolutely.

At it’s most powerful it is an urban concept. It needs built up or high density areas where it can generate a “ripple effect” from a critical mass of early “discoverers” and, importantly, the media. Sydney and Melbourne in particular suit pop-up retail. And specific areas are better for it than others. Little Collins Street for example.

It isn’t just about distress space. Supre’s use of the George Street Gowings store – while inspired – is not pop-up retail. There must be something inherently new to “discover” either in the product range or the service or the experience.

David Jones could easily take a leaf out of Selfridges book and use pop-up retail to launch new initiatives or one-off ideas. Westfield could certainly create exciting pop-up retail energy in selected centres for new young fashion retailers or new international retail brands entering the market. And I’m not talking about casual mall leasing here. Pop-up is about the unexpected, the twist, the discovered.

Australian brands relaunching could use pop-up retail to re-energise their forward momentum.

The formula is simple, the execution detailed – sound familiar?

Firstly, create something that is genuinely worth discovering. An exciting new product range. An immersive experience. A rewarding service.

Secondly, find an interesting and slightly quirky place to house it. Somewhere not too far off the beaten track but also not clustered together with everyone else – predictability is the enemy.

Thirdly, set your profit targets, your time horizons and your cost budgets low. This is a brand momentum builder first and foremost and relies on low cost, quick in and out.

Forthly, think creatively about everything you do. Genuine integrity and cleverness wins every time.

Fifthly, work through your order of influence from discoverers to media to early adopters to fast followers. How will you attract and influence each segment you touch? From intimacy to evangelism to close-down.

While it may not be a new thing, there is no doubt that pop-up retail in its latest form is a “disposible fashion” concept with a rapid decay cycle. It fits our desires for continual newness. It feeds our thirst for stimulation. And it can assist the pressures of building brand momentum faster in an era where we are seeing mass-marketing in decline.

But just as I’ve recently heard Google’s business model described as a “collection of seemingly unrelated cells which grow and die as they are needed”, so too the new model of how to market a retail business should be seen. And pop-up retail is one of the cells that can be a powerful addition to the armoury when used intelligently.