by Autumn Barnett — February 13, 2015

For Valentine’s Day, I usually enjoy a casual dinner with loved ones and friends.  However, this year, I decided that it would be fun to take part in one of the many events around the city that occur for the holiday. In my search for activities, two different “pop-ups” caught my eye: a Flea Market at the Rhino Room, at which various Valentine’s Day gifts and services will be provided; and the cat cafe, Meowtropolitan, where patrons will pay for an opportunity to interact and socialize with affectionate feline hosts.

Pop-up stores – short term retail sales spaces – and pop-up restaurants – the foodie version operating in someone’s home or in an existing restaurant space – have been a fun trend for those of us who like retail to track, and have successfully proliferated and evolved into all sorts of interesting offerings.

Nevertheless, as the economy recovers and the incentive to mitigate costs associated with selling space potentially declines, it seems worthwhile to consider whether the pop-up trend of the past several years is merely a fad, or whether it has long-lasting staying power.

Pop-ups have, in fact, existed for many decades – one of the oldest applications are Halloween stores. Every year, Halloween stores “pop up” selling costumes and decorations for a limited period of time. Today’s pop-up store has evolved to encompass many more categories, and their popularity with consumers is steadily increasing.

For reasons outlined below, I believe that pop-ups not only have what it takes to remain viable, but will likely evolve and expand in ways that will extend into new categories and satisfy additional consumer needs. 

1. Pop-ups give those selling goods or services the opportunity to test the market, build a loyal customer following, and, if successful, set up permanent space – all while maintaining low costs. Jack’s BBQ in Seattle is a great example of a pop-up turned restaurant. Jack Timmons, the owner of Jack’s BBQ, used BBQ pop-ups, known as the Seattle Brisket Experience, to experiment with different smoking techniques on different cuts of meats, while garnering a following of devoted fans. The success of his pop-ups led to the eventual opening of a restaurant in 2014.

2. Pop-ups give retailers and/or restaurants the ability to attract additional market segments, provide exclusive offers, and/or offload merchandise. For many years now, Target has partnered with high end designers (Zac Posen, Sam & Libby, and Phillip Lim to name a few) to sell more affordable goods (apparel, footwear, and housewares) to the masses. The designer’s products “pop-up” in Target stores for a limited period of time, in limited quantities. These examples of collaboration not only attract market segments that may not traditionally shop at Target for apparel, footwear, or housewares, but also give consumers access to exclusive designer goods that were traditionally prohibitively expensive.

3. Pop-ups not only benefit those selling the goods or services, but they also generate a sense of exclusivity and prestige for those that consume them. The designer collaborations at Target, which in itself are exclusive, are showcased for a limited period of time -- a mere few weeks. With such a limited quantity of merchandise manufactured, not every consumer will be able to get their hands on the merchandise, providing those that do purchase with a sense of prestige.

4. Pop-ups take advantage of mobility to go to the customer, often in their community, rather than waiting for the customer to come to them. Warby Parker, an eyewear company whose products have traditionally only been available online, has also been experimenting with a pop-up concept they call the “Class Trip”.  This concept featured Warby Parker employees traveling around the US in a large yellow bus to select cities, allowing consumers to see, feel, try on, and purchase the merchandise in person, rather than transacting over the internet.

In theory, pop-up concepts embody all the essential virtues of flexibility and experimentalism required to succeed in an industry that is constantly evolving.  However, in practice, individual success will still be determined by the same factors that influence traditional retailers.  Only those pop-ups that are really able to define their customer base, understand the needs and desires of that group, provide a sense of prestige and exclusivity, all while maintaining affordability, will succeed.  When the Cat Café pops up in Seattle this weekend, these same factors will play a large role in its success. What’s your favorite pop-up?  Tell us about it in the comments section below.

For another take on pop-ups, see my colleague Leah Lansbury Austin’s blog post, Removing the Seams of Retail.