Why place managers should know about pop-up retailing

Nemona pop-upby Prof Gary Warnaby

‘Pop-up’ is an increasingly important aspect of current retail activity, and indeed, it has been argued that the boundaries between pop-up and the more traditional retailing found in fixed store formats is becoming increasingly blurred. Whilst it can essentially be defined in terms of its temporary and ephemeral nature, pop-up retailing can also provide a very effective experiential in-store environment facilitating consumer-brand engagement, and also promote a brand or product line, to create a ‘buzz’ (all of which, it is hoped, conveys a sense of urgency to stimulate consumers’ behaviour). Indeed, the use of pop-up can be motivated by marketing communication imperatives as much as by actually making sales – although, of course, pop-up shops (although not necessarily termed as such) have long been used for selling goods where demand is very seasonal (e.g. Halloween, Christmas), making the occupation of permanent premises uneconomic.

The inherent flexibility of pop-up means that it is used by a wide range of retailers – from small entrepreneurs testing the potential of a business concept (which, if successful, becomes permanent), to major retailers and brands who may use pop-up primarily for promotional purposes (especially if linked to specific places and occasions – such as ‘Fashion Weeks’ etc.). An important factor influencing the use of pop-up is the availability of appropriate space. Given the fact that many of our traditional town and city centres have to come to terms with increasing amounts of vacant property arising from changing shopping patterns – particularly the growth in online shopping and the consequent rationalisation of store portfolios by many retailers – pop-up has been described as something of a panacea for these problems.

Poster of the NEMONA pop-up shop at Karstadt department store (Berlin)

Indeed, this may be so in some places. Pop-up might be a means by which yields can be maintained from property that would otherwise remain permanently vacant. For example, there are particular transport hubs in London where the retail activity therein is dominated by a succession of pop-up stores (and the ‘churn’ of these activities can be its own attraction). Also there are (what seem like permanent) pop-up malls such as Boxpark in Shoreditch, London (and more recently Croydon) which have become shopping destinations in their own right. However, for many places outside of hipster-land, the reality of pop-up might not be as ‘cool’, and rather than being a panacea, the use of pop-up activities may instead be more like a sticking plaster covering up some rather ugly urban wounds.

‘Pop-up’ – which seems to have become almost a shorthand term for any temporary urban activity, commercial or otherwise – has become much higher-profile in recent years. Indeed, there is arguably a whole ‘industry’ developing around it; from design agencies, organisations converting shipping containers into ‘nomadic’ retail spaces, to space-brokers acting as intermediaries between owners of vacant property and retailers/brands that want to – albeit temporarily – occupy it, in addition to place managers seeking to maximise the attractiveness of their locales by any means possible. What, arguably, is needed is a more substantive investigation into the potential and pitfalls of pop-up in order for place managers to make informed decisions about this phenomenon.