Customer Faithful

What we can all learn from retail pop-up stores

Blog post   •   Apr 11, 2013 12:48 BST

It's hardly surprising that so-called 'pop-up' stores have grown so much in recent years. With the state of the UK economy in general and the decline of the High Street in particular, landlords have been desperate to fill vacant units, and Local Councils equally keen to avoid the visibility of decline that boarded-up and whitewashed shop windows bring.

But is the concept of the pop-up itself a winning proposition? Is it sustainable for a new breed of retailers, and how good is the shopper experience? More importantly, what can we learn from pop-ups, not just as retailers but for anyone manging a brand and its customer experience? Here's some suggestions....

Pop-Up Stores - The  Shopper Experience

Pros
1) Some shoppers like the variety and eclectic mix that a pop-up store can bring, especially for goods that are otherwise only available online. This enables them to touch and feel the product.
2) Pop-ups feel new...at least for a while. They have a curiosity factor, which draws people over the threshold. This does not negate the need for high impact window displays, but does encourage a degree of transparency in them, so the inside of the store can be peeked at too.
3) this format carries an expectation of browsability. At their best, they have a kind of market-stall feel, with a sense of discovery that is often sadly lacking in the uniformity of a modern-day mall offer. The challenge of course is to be able to maintain this, and keep it sustainable, with fresh lines and displays

These benefits should serve to both remind and challenge us as to whether our customer experience is as fresh and dynamic as our brand promises it will be. If pop-ups champion the experience of discovery, how accessible can your goods and services be? Can they be sampled for free? And even if your proposition is founded on a promise of 24/7 consistency, what is the potential for a nice surprise in your customer experience?

Retail Ready People, Enfield

Retail Ready People, Enfield - North London

Cons
1) Shoppers are aware that the store may not be around for more than a few weeks. What happens if they need to return an item? For established brands using pop-ups for promotional or brand activation, that's one thing. But boutique niche brands might just disappear completely. For good.

2) With set up being so quick, one of the casualties of the format is often customer service. Staff may not have been trained much, beyond the operational basics of using the till. And aside from lacking product knowledge, they may simply not have an aptitude for service. Even in a pop-up store, this still matters.

3) Pop-up stores (understandably) tend not to commit to stock depths the way that regular stores do. For a customer, that means that not all product combinations of colour and size are available for long. The impact of having only odd sizes left can make a store feel like an outlet. Beware damaging your brand in consumers' minds.

The key learning here is about your brand's ability to inspire confidence and trust in its customers. Will you be there for them when things go wrong, not just functionally (opening hours, contact centres, email, Twitter) but emotionally? What's the cost benefit of going beyond the small print for your customers, in order to demonstrate that you truly act in their interests?
Like pop-ups, this degree of trust is hard-earned by new entrants to any industry, yet it is something that established brands often take for granted. 
And if you are a startup brand yourself, how can you mitigate against these pop-up problems, perhaps by partnering with others to provide confidence guarantees to get you started?

What about as retailers?
On the plus side, pop-ups do still tend to draw (sometimes free) media attention, which can equate to considerable spend in PR if well targeted. In the US, major chains such as ToysRUs and Target have had success in using pop-ups to introduce urban shoppers to their brand in a relatively inexpensive way. Units are smaller and so cheap to fit out, and can be packed with the 'best-of-the-range', showcasing what the retailer can offer. In addition, the "when it's gone, its gone" approach adds a sense of urgency to visit before it disappears.
Smaller, independent retailers may see pop-ups as a longer term opportunity. It provides a chance to test a proposition or a geographic location with low commitment, and limited expectation from the public. After all, not all pop-ups are run by career retailers. Many are charity or community developments (see photo above) that have different objectives to those of a chain store, but still require clear and compelling marketing and communication to get these assorted ambitions across to shoppers.
Finally - let's not forget that, at a time of economic hardship, these short term enterprises can provide valuable work experience for young people. This is a benefit of pop-up retailing which should not be overlooked, and one which can be incorporated into both planning consent and corporate social responsibility programmes alike.