• Anna Tinsley

The Power of the Pop-Up Store

In the age of online retail pop-up stores offer a unique omnichannel experience for customers and brands.

The ‘in-person’ retail apocalypse has long been thought of as inevitable. The seemingly non-existent barriers to entry for online stores and the global marketplace for customers make it a no-brainer for many brands. But it is not time to give up on ‘bricks and mortar’ retail entirely. These retail spaces can be unlocked and utilised by brands in a different way. The pop-up way. In this new age of retail, brands can couple seamless digital capabilities with in-person immersive pop-up experiences to entice customers and drive online sales.

For several years the predominant focus for many brands has been their online stores. This trend was accelerated by the pandemic upending retail entirely, giving further momentum to brands to make the switch online. High rental costs for large retail units make ‘bricks and mortar’ retail non-financially viable for many brands. Especially when the consumer base is switching online. The forced behaviour changes due to continuous lockdowns meant that customers were forced to shop online. The lasting habitual changes that have remained post pandemic mean that certain customer groups now avoid ‘in-person’ retail entirely. Whilst stores have made changes to layouts and increased sanitisation, many customers still wish to avoid the arduous task of in-person retail. Further demographic trends have meant brands have had to switch online to stay relevant. A Mckinsey 2020 retail report estimates that 50-60% of the primary influence for Gen-Z shoppers is driven by social media and online sites.

This is not to say that ‘in-person’ retail is at death's door. The recent opening of the Battersea power station development is evidence that brands and customers do value ‘in-person’ retail. The £9 billion development offers customers over 100 retail options within a shiny new facade. Whilst Battersea is already establishing itself as a retail destination, the reality for the average high street is very different. Empty units and clearance sales are commonplace on almost every UK high street. The British Retail Consortium estimated that post-pandemic 1 in 7 UK retail units were empty. There exists a self-reinforcing cycle in this case. Empty retail spaces reduce footfall as customers have fewer options and this in turn leads to further store closures. To break the cycle both brands and landlords must be creative with their space and activate it in a mutually beneficial way.

Pop-up stores traditionally thought of as a way for brands to experiment with new locations, offer great potential in this new age of retail. Elastic Path now estimates that the UK pop-up retail industry is worth an excess of £2.3 billion. Pop-ups promise to provide the immersive experience that brands lack online. For many brands, pop-up stores are not a stock-shifting exercise, but rather a way to allow customers to connect with products. Providing an opportunity for customers to interact in such a way creates customer engagement which translates to brand loyalty. Makeup retail Glossier opened a London-based pop-up back in 2019. The two-month pop-up saw over 100,000 customers flood through its doors to test and try its product range. With ‘instagrammable’ backdrops the pop-up created the hysteria it was intended to. So successful Glossier decided to stay, opening a permanent store in Covent Garden. Whilst this level of success cannot be expected at every pop-up, it is representative of the new type of retail customer’s desire. There is certainly opportunity for brands to offer something unique which cannot be accessed online. But to be relevant pop-ups must tap into customers' curiosity and not simply shift stock.

Pop-ups not only offer an opportunity for brands but for landlords too. Uncertainty regarding tenancy and the saturated market means retail space is an increasingly unattractive investment. If Landlords unlock their retail space for pop-up capability not only, will it generate the rental income intended but reactivate the space driving greater footfall. Several Landlords have already started making this lucrative switch. Online site Appearhere, described as the ‘Air BnB of retail’, has facilitated the opening of over 100,000 stores across the UK, US, and France since its founding in 2012. Landlords can list their space on the platform for the sole purpose of short-term retail rentals. Specifically designed pop-up spaces are also increasing in popularity. The successful emergence of Box Parks in London are demonstrative of this. The 300 square-feet ‘Boxshops’ made from shipping containers are filled with youthful brands and unlock the retail space in a GenZ way.

The ‘death of the high street’ need not be so dire if retail space is reimagined. Brands that can activate space in an enticing, immersive way will tap into the ‘try before you buy’ customer mindset. These spaces will become window shopping destinations that funnel customers to shopping online. Brands must seize this opportunity and feed into the omni-channel experience desired by customers.