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The Origins of Pop-up Shops

Elena Wang

Even if you don’t live in a major metropolitan area, you’ve likely experienced the guerrilla retail concept known as the pop-up shop. Think Girl Scout cookie stands. Craft fairs. The sudden appearance of costume stores near Halloween. Pop-up shops are low-cost, temporary retail installations that are playfully infiltrating the urban landscape and harken back to a retail strategy common to small merchants in town and country alike. A shop opens with a handful of merchandise, then closes when the goods are sold out. This can take a few hours or a few days. Its arrival is unexpected, almost magical—delighted passersby are greeted with stacks of Thin Mints or hand-dyed tees on a humdrum street corner. No wonder, then, that global businesses from Target to Google have adopted this stealth tactic in the last decade.

Trend analysts first coined the pop-up concept in the early 2000s, when the L.A. company Vacant began to operate apparel stores that moved sites every few weeks. The rationale was to bring niche goods to customers in dynamic settings that varied by location and fostered customer engagement. A croquet course at the back of a pop-up brought skinny ties to life. Skate ramps filled with local kids and pro-skaters, set next to board shorts and hoodies for an eight-day run, reimagined marketing and retail at the same time.

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In 2004, Comme des Garçons was a fashion bandit. Pictured: the Singapore flagship store

Vacant’s founders came to this concept on a business trip to Tokyo, so it makes sense that the Japanese fashion label Comme des Garçons quickly became the fashion industry’s most famous practitioner of pop-ups. Between 2004 and 2009, Comme des Garçons ran scores of pop-up shops, each lasting no more than a year. The label put a different spin on the Japanese retail practice of opening a store until a batch of limited-edition goods sells out, however, by downplaying flashiness and emphasizing eccentricity. The Comme des Garçons name did not appear on the storefront. Merchandise was not priced. If you found the pop-up at all—under a bridge in Warsaw or in an old bookstore in Berlin—you might have had to peruse without assistance.

Pop-ups went mainstream in the late 2000s, spreading far beyond the fashion and apparel industry. Pop-up clubs and restaurants, hotels, and even grocery stores surfaced in cities around the world. The new variety of pop-ups ran the gamut from art exhibit to publicity stunt. In some, price tags were skipped. Others revived derelict warehouses for a fortnight. And then there were the pop-ups that flitted through midtown Manhattan and other retail centers in Seoul, Hong Kong or Sydney. What united all of these ventures, though, was the sense of fun and surprise. People encountered pop-ups by chance. Folks really in the know might receive a heads-up from a company to spread the word about an opening, but the actual experience would remain a mystery until they literally walked through the door.

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Pictured: The Zady Pop-up Holiday Shop at LGA airport in New York City

The pop-up concept continues to evolve as a greater variety of companies embrace experimental and whimsical approaches to retail. Rising occupancy rates in U.S. commercial real estate have yielded a store-within-a-store pop-up model, where pop-ups cycle through larger stores. Alternatively, the street label Airwalk launched the first invisible pop-ups in 2010: Customers downloaded an app and headed to specified public locations where they could access virtual galleries of sneakers using their smartphones.

The irony of this guerrilla movement going mainstream is that pop-ups have become a fixture on the retail scene. Food and, at least in L.A., fashion trucks regularly purvey their goods. Steady successions of pop-ups are increasingly common in major cities. The Openhouse Gallery in New York hosts a permanent pop-up retail location.

“It’s a genre that only makes sense when it’s a surprise,“ opines New York magazine.

Some notable theorists have suggested the pop-up’s appeal will fade as large brands saturate the market. But Vacant, pop-up retail’s stateside pioneer, is still developing new concepts that seek to reinvent the way we shop. The goal is to create powerful and lasting memories that ultimately transcend both the product and the site itself.