Pop-up Retail’s Unerring Influence

By Peter-Tolin Baker, Visual Merchandising Specialist, P-T B Design Services


Not so long ago—15 to 20 years—before Facebook and Instagram, and just as the internet became publically available, the appearance of pop-up stores on the retail landscape created quite a buzz. There was much debate that this seemingly new store format was either another sign of retail’s “apocalypse,” or that it represented a welcomed and refreshing approach to retail design.

Pop-ups continue to represent an active layer within the wide bandwidth of retail, yet it’s worth noting that, in many ways, they were the groundbreakers for today’s fascination with experiential retail environments. Many of the more newsworthy aspects of what comprised the pop-up’s unique attributes have become the basic building blocks for today’s experiential retail environments. These include integrating and testing new customer touchstones via digital marketing, social media, online sales and product launches, along with the more tangible aspects of designing a successful retail experience, such as flexible fixtures, thoughtful layout, good lighting, bold use of signage and graphics, unique materials and finishes, etc.

Global economics helped spur the advent of what became referred to as “flash” or pop-up stores. Turbulent economic times in the 1990s within the commercial real estate markets, coupled with surging rental rates and dramatic stock market fluctuations, resulted in many store closures, high vacancy rates and empty storefronts. Driven by lower rates and more available short-term lease agreements, pop-ups began to occupy select vacant stores—most notably in cities such as Tokyo, London, Los Angeles and New York—providing landlords a unique opportunity to fill the void.

Equally, pop-up retail was used to create demand for limited product or in response to a hot trend, be it seasonal or limited availability in select locations for a specific amount of time. This approach helped drive many of the earlier successes of late-’90s Japanese pop-ups and early retail-gallery ventures in the United States, including Russ Miller’s pivotal Vacant in Los Angeles.

It was the spirit of pop-ups that was so catching. The short-term nature of the store’s lease, combined with a sense of spontaneity, creativity and thrift, demanded innovation and speed, which produced visually dramatic results that emphasized brand experience and product interaction over sales—and all on a budget. More marketing-than sales-driven, pop-ups provided a helpful means to reach existing and new customers in oftentimes untested or pioneering locations. This spirit of creative spontaneity has continued to fuel the evolving changes in all levels of retail design.

It also quickly drove interest and involvement of a widening array of brands, from big box to luxury fashion houses, including Target’s pop-up on New York’s Chelsea Pier (2002), Comme Des Garçons’ Berlin Guerilla store (2004) and Louis Vuitton’s Underground/Tokyo luxury basement loading dock (2009).

Before pop-ups appeared, there were many ways in which temporary retail locations were being used. Seasonal pop-ups, such as fireworks stands, Christmas shops and Halloween costume stores, are common and represent similar qualities. The spectrum of temporary retail settings includes a full range of street fairs, promotional events, consumer expos and tradeshows. Pop-up shops today now include both brick-and-mortar storefronts as well as a variety of temporary structures, from retrofitted shipping containers to vintage Airstream trailers.

But the forces that created pop-ups were unique, as was the response. Quick, fast, temporary—qualities inherent to pop-ups—have become further interwoven into today’s retail landscape and creative design process for permanent retail as well. This has helped to break the longstanding notion that a retailer or brand needed a long-term lease and a fully built-out store environment to be taken seriously by customers.

Short-term leases, be it three days or three months, are proving a unique and ever-evolving option to the retail design landscape. It allows retailers the unique opportunity to directly interact and communicate with customers, test new markets and products, engage the local community and tell a strong brand story in a spirited way.

As owner of PTB Design Services, Peter-Tolin Baker is actively involved with design and content solutions for a range of retailers, branded events and experiential environments, including Stella Artois, Mattel, Asprey and Calvin Klein. Additional experience includes scenic design for more than 50 theatrical productions, overseeing visual merchandising for Tiffany & Co. and Henri Bendel New York, as well as teaching at the Fashion Institute of Technology/SUNY.

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