The Meteoric Rise of The Pop-Up

Pop-up concept stores, pop-up themed bars, pop-up cat cafes. We’re all obsessed with the transient and the new. But why have we all fallen so hard for the pop-up and should we expect them to stick around?

Sydneysiders queue up outside the Supreme X Louis Vuitton pop-up in Bondi. Photo credit: Pedestrian TV.

Last week, the UK’s fashion news reported “the death of the department store.” The headlines came after House of Fraser – once one of the UK’s biggest department store chains – announced the closure of 31 of its 59 stores, including its Oxford Street flagship in London.

Hardly surprising, yes. Keeping IRL stores open is expensive business, retailers are closing down locations faster than ever. The dot-com era has made it all too easy to forgo confusing floor plans and escalators that inevitably lead up to the wrong department, in favour of armchair browsing. But alas, we haven’t become so intolerant of human contact that brick-and-mortar shops are now entirely redundant, their format has just changed.

This new format, the pop-up, is less about the practicality of department stores and more about providing unique experiences. The novelty of the gargantuan one-stop shop has worn off; 20 plus brands of socks under one department-store roof is of little interest to the modern shopper. In a market where brands are fighting for shoppers’ attention, retail labels are moving away from merely providing material goods and re-inventing themselves as lifestyle brands to capture the imagination of new and loyal customers.

Like outdoor cinemas and immersive theatre, the pop-up offers a carefully crafted experience that encourages people (especially Millennials who tend to eschew traditional shopping experiences more than previous generations) offline and outdoors. Pop-ups are less about reaching sales targets and more about creating a cultural moment that says something of the brand and its relevance.

Shoppers queuing outside Glossier’s pop-up in San Fransisco are given branded umbrellas as they wait. Photo credit: Glossier

In the past, these experiences have taken the form of live bands, branded cocktails, circus acts and have even gone as far as stores built into buses. Gimmicks or not, a unique experience creates a social buzz that undoubtedly draws customers in, and a queue around the block is sure to stir up passerby intrigue. Beauty brand Glossier’s month-long pop-up – with long queues for the entirety of its fixture – proved as much. The ephemeral nature of pop-ups taps into what researchers have learned about our innate attraction to novelty.

But with each funky new pop-up comes increased competition to outdo the last. What was once an in for (largely-online) retailers with limited brick-and-mortar budgets has become a mainstream weapon, adopted by retailers with access to huge marketing budgets, celebrity hooks and large-scale gimmicks. The pop-up industry is reportedly worth more than US$50 billion, hardly a game for the little fish.

The pop-up’s spike in popularity may indeed be the death of it. Smaller brands simply can’t match the scale of their larger counterparts, rendering the format available only to those with bigger budgets. And with each new pop-up, the initial appeal loses its potency. If the key to a successful pop-up is one that offers shoppers a time-limited opportunity and novel experience, then the pop-up must learn when to close shop and retain its ephemeral appeal. What no longer surprises and delights will go the way of department stores, as shoppers search for the next new.