Let’s say you’re the brain behind an awesome small brand on the rise and you want to take it physical. You Google “pop-up agencies” simply looking for some ideas and help. What do you find? What are you promised?
Largely, retailers who dive into researching how to do a pop-up are bombarded with imagery of cool, sexy spaces. The existing imagery promotes this feeling of FOMO and one-upmanship. The attention is focused on the physical manifestation of the brand — but that isn’t always what retailers should be testing.
Don’t pop up, prototype
At Paper Plane, we focus on the value of prototyping, instead of pop-ups merely for the sake of popping up in a physical (and Instagrammable) location with physical product. A look-and-feel prototype is only one type of prototype, and it may not serve every business’ purposes. If you’re looking at ramping up your marketing, is a physical pop-up the best way to spend your money? If you’re running a pop-up that focused on testing, maybe your focus won’t be spending on a Pinterest-worthy space. Maybe you’ll try making operational changes or test adoption of a type of product.
A discerning shopper doesn’t have to wander far in places like Carson City or SoHo to find evidence of retailers who were too focused on the physical manifestation of the brand, as opposed to the guts, the “why” behind the brand’s presence there.
Launching a retail concept without a mindset of prototyping and testing can lead to some unfortunate snafus our team has experienced firsthand, such as:
- A local grocer that focuses thousands of dollars on renovating their smoothie bar while their point of sale system regularly malfunctions and is offline hours at a time — thus bringing in more foot traffic that staff can’t convert to paying customers, and creating a bigger version of their problem
- A beautiful new location of a popular upscale restaurant that’s been decorated to a T, yet has low traffic, inconsistent service and a bad menu that’s off-theme — putting money in the space instead of concentrating on how to execute the concept properly
- A brand so focused on a mall kiosk location they’d already set their hearts on that they lost sight of the original mission behind popping up, and whether that was even the best place for their target market
It all comes down to where retailers are empowered to focus their resources. Are they investing in the sexy feel-good stuff, or in sustainable systems? Ultimately, who cares if you have a gorgeous space if nobody comes?
If you’re running a pop-up that focused on testing, maybe your focus won’t be spending on a Pinterest-worthy space.
“We’ve already figured it out”
Businesses like simple solutions. They like to say yes or no quickly, because solving problems quickly feels good. However, the very nature of a pop-up is trying something new and figuring things out on the fly. Because of most retailers’ desire for that simple solution, too many pop-up consultants say, “We’ve already figured it out,” offering that security the retailer craves — that certain media splash or guaranteed sales bump.
What works for one brand won’t necessarily work for another. For instance, there’s currently an almost dizzying focus on a certain curated luxury-minimalist aesthetic in pop-up shops in, appropriately, luxury markets. Some pop-up real estate companies even offer chic, sleek fitting rooms and mirrors as part of their rental package, offering little space for a retailer to ask themselves whether mirrors or fitting rooms are even right for the concept? Likewise, pop-ups are heavily concentrated in New York or San Francisco — markets that don’t reflect the income or habits of the average US consumer — and cater to the millennial shopper. Retailers that test in these limited ways come away with limited insights and limited long-lasting results.
There is no cookie-cutter answer to what a pop-up should explore for a business. The answer lies with the actual (and not imagined) customer, the expert whose answers are often far from an uncomplicated, soothing ‘yes’ or ‘no’ whose needs often lie outside of a chic fitting room in LA.
There is no cookie-cutter answer to what a pop-up should explore for a business. The answer lies with the actual (and not imagined) customer, the expert whose answers are often far from an uncomplicated, soothing “yes” or “no,” whose needs often lie outside of a chic fitting room in LA. Therefore, curiosity is essential, for the retailer and the pop-up consultant who claims to serve them, as is resisting the temptation to begin and end your pop-up concept with a focus on real estate instead of overall goals.
Chasing the $5,000 idea
Curiosity can be uncomfortable. Retailers don’t like to live in the fuzzy front end of design, where you have to go through a lot of iterations with circuitous trial and error. Businesses try to get themselves out of the fuzzy front end by throwing a dart in a direction, even if it isn’t the right direction to go, and then are tempted to quickly put resources behind that direction before they’re confident. You can be very arbitrary when you’re avoiding discomfort, not to mention when you have so many prominent shiny examples of competitors’ pop-ups in front of you.
Curiosity can be uncomfortable. Retailers don’t like to live in the fuzzy front end of design, where you have to go through a lot of iterations with circuitous trial and error. You can be very arbitrary when you’re avoiding discomfort.
The pressure from folks like Nordstrom is real, and it can feel like you have to spend like a legacy retailer to grab the same impact. But take it firsthand from someone who worked for a large retailer — it can be quite chaotic and arbitrary in big shops, too. They don’t have it any more figured out than anybody else. They’ve got an “innovation” budget, or went to a conference where they heard about some pop-up that sounds important and interesting, and they’re spending large chunks of cash on renovating old stores or popping up in luxury markets, instead of finding the $5,000 or $500 idea they could test instead. The $5,000 question is, “How cheaply can we test this idea?” Instead of defaulting to, “How much of a splash can we make with this entire $20,000 budget?”
Paper Plane believes success belongs to the brand that’s willing to invest their time and energy into being adaptive, modular and flexible; the brand that’s excited to be proven wrong by their customer; the brand ready to explore an idea and be willing to take the next step when our experiment proves their hypothesis.