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The short, surprising history of the pop-up shop

Business · 5 min read

The short, surprising history of the pop-up shop

Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Cruise Terminal is an unlikely site for a high-end streetwear store. Yet on November 18, 2017, DHL and Vetements turned it into one of fashion’s most sought-after addresses. See what your business could learn from it. 

The pop-up sale included tongue-in-cheek tourist memorabilia alongside their trademark clothing, like T-shirts co-branded with Umbro and sneakers with Reebok. It may have been short lived but it made a lasting impression1

How the pop-up shop conquered the mainstream

Over the last decade, the pop-up shop has become a staple in the retail world, an easy way for brands to get their name in front of a new audience and test its potential, all with minimum financial outlay. For fashion-lovers from cities like New York, London and Los Angeles, the rise of the pop-up shop was an extension of the sample sale trend that swept through their cities in the 90s. Garment racks filled with one-offs and clothing samples would be sold in small, unremarkable spaces over the course of a long weekend. Only those in the know knew how to get their hands on these heavily-discounted pieces. Word of mouth did all the hard marketing. 

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Two workers at a DHL pop-up shop

How to use scarcity to create demand

In 2004, Rei Kawakubo, the founder of Japanese fashion label Comme des Garçons took the sample sale concept to a whole new level, by opening a pop-up shop in Berlin. The label, known for its uniquely shaped high-end garments, was sought-after in the German capital, where avant-garde fashion rules the day. Unlike a sample sale, this store featured pieces from the latest Comme collection in a sample sale environment, but at standard retail prices. How did it draw the crowds? It was the shop’s temporary nature that created a sense of urgency. A new shopping trend was born. 

Turning anti-establishment edge to your advantage

As the retail industry has evolved over the last decade, with more consumers doing their shopping online, the pop-up shop has become a necessary part of many brands’ strategies. Long lease times and costly overheads have made bricks-and-mortar stores too costly and hence, less feasible, for many labels. The seasonal nature of fashion likewise makes fast stock turnaround a hard reality for many retailers. At the same time, brand-conscious consumers are keen to see the products in real life – to try them on, get an idea of the quality, become comfortable with a new-to-them line.

In an online world, bring the goods to the customer

Pop-up shops, which are often set up in off-the-beaten-path places and rely on word-of-mouth advertising, have provided an answer to the conflict retailers face in the 21st century, between online shopping and establishing an in-real-life presence2. By removing themselves from the high street, brands like Vetements are setting themselves up as hard-to-get, an exclusivity that only whets consumer desire while solidifying their anti-establishment reputation. They are also remaining true to their philosophy that demand should always exceed supply. A pop-up shop with limited advertising means tastemakers who are in-the-know can get their hands on the goods while also preventing waste and maintaining the brand’s relevance. 

How to reach a difficult audience with minimal investment

Pop-up shops can bring a product to a targeted market without the need for a daunting long-term investment3. It’s a strategy that works not only for high-end fashion labels but has also won over retailers specializing in seasonal goods. Retailers of chocolates and flowers suddenly appear on your route home around Valentine’s Day. Come November, Christmas decorations appear for sale in disused storefronts. With minimal investment in otherwise empty spaces, pop-ups can appear for days, weeks or months at a time, long enough to bring product to consumers, but short enough to prevent buyers from getting bored of the stock. 

Making your brand look exclusive, without the expense

As well as giving brands a chance to bring new products and concepts to new audiences, pop-up shops are a cost-efficient way to see just how well a more permanent retail set-up would fare in a new location. As one-of-a-kind sneakers become ubiquitous and 3-D printing enters the mainstream, the fleeting nature of pop-up shops responds to the consumer need to feel both trend-setting and a part of something highly exclusive. 

It looks like the DHL and Vetements pop-up collaboration in Hong Kong is just a taste of the new mainstream.


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