Pop-ups are extremely popular. In the past year, museums took over Instagram. Taco Bell opened up a hotel. There were pop-up bars, restaurants, boutiques, and other ventures. 

It seemed like every brand was trying to create a pop-up of their own, and experiential retail made numerous lists of top trends. From the Rosé Mansion to the Color Factory, there was a pop-up for practically everything last year. 

Yet while immersive pop-ups and limited edition experiences received significant and merited attention, it’s important to remember that they’re not exactly revolutionary concepts. In fact, pop-up shopping and experiences are as old as retail. 

The Rise of Pop-Ups

The pop-up trend can be traced as far back as the industrialization of England. London-based and other traveling merchants “popped-up” all across Europe bringing exotic products, spices, carpets, and fashion to new markets. 

It wasn’t until the dot-com bust of the early 2000s that pop-ups reemerged as a trend to watch. Businesses were closing. Smaller retailers simply couldn’t afford the prices of fixed locations, leaving many empty storefronts ready to be transformed into rotating galleries, sophisticated trunk shows, and one-off events. 

A decade later, the mass migration of big-box retailers to digital channels and the closing of larger brick-and-mortar stores exacerbated this dilemma. The digital revolution ushered in an era of ultra-convenience. eCommerce brought with it more available products, faster shipping, and unbeatable prices. 

It seemed like the unstoppable wave of the future. 

Yet in a world of social media inundation, product saturation, and digital overload, online shoppers are beginning to crave real-world experiences just as much as they do convenience.

In fact, according to research shared by Google in late 2018, 61% of shoppers would rather shop at a store that has a physical location than one that is online only.

At our core, humans are social creatures. We want connection, interaction, and experiences more than we want things. Today’s consumers don’t just buy products, they buy that connection and experience. 

Brick-and-mortar is not dying, but it is certainly evolving.   

Omnichannel Marketing

Consumers still find traditional retail environments enjoyable. Being able to browse a curated space, receive individualized attention and recommendations, and walk out with something tangible appeals to people. They like the immediacy, the information, and the knowledge of exact pricing - no worrying about shipping fees or other variable charges. 

In fact, in 2019, there was a resurgence of in-store shopping. According to a September 2019 report from Blackhawk Network, 28% of US internet users shopped in-store more often this year than last year, and another 63% said their in-store shopping has remained consistent over the past two years.  

Smart brands will find ways to marry the two primary shopping methods - in-store and online - and evolve in-store experiences to meet modern customer needs and expectations. 

Omni Channel Marketing graphic

Consequently, also in 2019, we saw the emergence of modular retail spaces as responsive playgrounds for rotating brands. It wasn’t about digital versus physical shopping, but rather how to successfully leverage omnichannel marketing strategies to create lasting experiences in an era of intangibility.

Pop-ups allow brands to create rich, dynamic, fully immersive worlds, which compliment their digital strategies.

Create your own ice cream flavor, post about it on social media, and then go home and order your favorite flavors directly from the brand’s website. Omnichannel experiences like this meet consumer desires for connection, strengthen brand loyalty, and still drive eCommerce sales. 

They also provide solutions to customer frustrations. For example, a 2019 study from consulting company Kearney, determined that roughly 74% of customers appreciate well-curated store experiences that are focused on a limited number of products, rather than sometimes overwhelmingly large online catalogs. Another 73% shared that they use stores as their primary source for product discovery. Both of these insights can be addressed via a pop-up experience. 

Furthermore, the “here today, gone tomorrow” nature of pop-up experiences prevents consumer fatigue and fuels demand. The digital revolution and the rise of eCommerce liberated brands from the need of a fixed physical space. Now, with the rise of a smart world, where everyday objects can come to life, pop-ups are evolving the way consumers interact with a digital world.

Connecting Real Life and Digital

Thanks to the brevity and low costs to implement, pop-up concepts create the perfect outlet for experimentation, and particularly for brands to leverage and grow digital strategies in “real life” environments. 

Companies can play with the synergistic relationships between worlds, combining strategies to deliver unique and exciting experiences for consumers.

Nike is a great example of this. Since 2016, they have delighted loyal fans by utilizing geofencing and push notifications to invite them on a high-tech treasure-hunt across their city. SNKR app users within a 25-mile radius receive “Shock Drop SNKR Passes,” which invite them to an exclusive opportunity to buy rare and highly sought after sneakers in surprise pop-up shops. 

Similarly, last year, ice cream brand Magnum, and beauty brand Benefit, partnered up to create the “Magnum Beauty Store.” The brands designed a funhouse where shoppers could engage in everything from personalizing ice cream to shaping their eyebrows. But the highlighted feature was their use of Augmented Reality to inspire visitors to “Release their Beast.” 

They could engage with Magnum’s ‘four beasts’ (a leopard, polar bear, lion, or tiger) through an interactive LED wall and built-in, wifi-enabled photo booth capable of sharing photos directly to social media. This strategy enabled users to generate buzzworthy content while being fully immersed in a brand experience.  

Pop-ups also allow brands to challenge the concept of physical retail space. In another tech-inspired strategy, Havianas shoes launched a digitally-driven pop-up to help them increase their global presence and penetrate the U.S. market.

In July of 2019, they launched a campaign centered around a summer-inspired walkable, shoppable, mural right off the boardwalk on Venice Beach, California. The mural, a work of art celebrating Brazilian culture created by New York City-based street artist Buff Monster, was printed onto a cushioned material, similar to that used for Havaianas slippers. 

Pedestrians were asked to shed their shoes and “Step into Summer.” Leveraging Google Vision A.I. technology, Havianas created a unique and tangible shopping experience for the digital consumer. Users could snap a photo of their favorite portion of the design and shop for matching sandals, all from their smartphone.

In Application

The world as we know it is ever-changing. As we become more adaptive, so does our idea of retail. Going into 2020, we are uniquely positioned to eradicate the lines between physical and digital spaces in ways that engage and challenge consumer perceptions of what retail can be. 

For eCommerce brands, this means providing unique, memorable, loyalty-building “real-life” experiences that drive digital sales. Shop a pop-up and have the products delivered directly to your home. Attend a branded experience where you download an app, and then use it in the future to virtually try on and order products.  

The possibilities are endless and the landscape is largely uncharted. eCommerce brands are only just beginning to tap into the innovations that intersecting channels can provide. Get out in front of the trends and capitalize on them.

About the Author

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Sarah Falcon

VP, Marketing Global

Sarah is a nimble and creative marketing leader with 15 years of experience in a mix of agencies, B2B, and B2C enterprises. She brings a background in building and driving impactful marketing practices and processes for growing businesses. Sarah has expertise in brand, content marketing, lead generation, and marketing operations. She’s a co-author of the 2019 book on B2B eCommerce Digital Branch Secrets: eCommerce Playbook for Distributors.

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