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The A-to-Z Guide on Opening a Pop Up Shop

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Phil Grossman

17 Mar, 2020

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The world’s shopping habits are changing. While brick-and-mortar stores used to be the default, more and more businesses are keeping their businesses fully online both to keep overhead low and accommodate the market’s growing preference for shopping for underwear in their underwear. 

In fact, ecommerce accounted for 14.1% of all global retail sales in 2019, and that number is expected to grow to 22% by 2023, according to Statista. That means that by 2023, we can expect more than one in every five purchases we make to occur online. That’s pretty staggering. 

Yet, despite the rapid growth of ecommerce, the vast majority of all retail sales (85.9% in 2019) still occur in person, indicating that sometimes convenience just can’t replace a real, personal connection with a brand. 

So, what’s a brand to do if it wants a piece of the brick-and-mortar pie but can’t afford (or doesn’t want) a permanent physical location?

Enter pop-up shops. These short-term shops provide a great way to get more up close and personal with your customers without making a long-term commitment to renting out a storefront. Plus, a pop-up shop can make a great trial run to see if a more permanent brick-and-mortar store would be right for you.

If you’re wondering how to start a pop-up shop, you’re in the right place. In this guide, we’re going to go over what a pop-up shop is, how it works, how you can get started with one, and we’ll also give you the lowdown on pop-up shop marketing. 

So, let’s dive in with the most important question of all:

What is a pop-up shop?

A pop-up shop or pop-up store is a short-term retail space that’s only open for a few days or weeks before packing things up and closing shop. In many cases, pop-up stores serve as a type of event or brand activation that helps a business grow its brand awareness. Others attempt to profit off of a temporary trend that the owner knows won’t last for long enough to warrant a permanent location. 

For the latter type, think fidget spinners — they were the hottest thing in the world for a period of a few months, but after the craze wore off, you hardly hear about them anymore. Having a fidget spinner pop-up shop could have worked for a few days or a week, but investing long-term in a fidget spinner emporium clearly would not have worked out well. 

Although pop-up shops may sound like a newfangled Millennial invention, they’re only sort of new. In fact, merchants have been setting up pop-up shops to sell their wares for centuries. Our modern-day conception of what a pop-up store is is just an Instagrammable version of what the pioneers did. That said, pop-up shops saw a major resurgence starting in the early 2000’s, and contemporary pop-ups are still building off that millennial momentum. 

What are the benefits of pop-up shops?

Pop-up shops jolt people from their status quo and, in turn, make themselves an event to be enjoyed, not just another trip to the grocery. When something unusual happens, humans tend to have a natural desire to explore and figure out what it is. Pop-up shops are inherently unusual and temporary, and that means people are fairly likely to want to see what all the commotion is about — before it disappears forever. 

Pop-up shops are a form of brand activation — they foster interaction between a brand and its audience. When people interact with your business in person, you have an opportunity to make a lasting (and self-worthy) impression on them. Plus, the in-person interactions can give you insight into where your business is excelling, and where it could use some improvement. 

Similarly, pop-up shops are also a form of experiential marketing, which is all about hosting memorable events that will stick with your customers. When you host a great event, people want to advertise it via Instagram and Facebook by their own volition. So, not only do you get all the benefits of increased interaction with your customers, but you also get some organic word-of-mouth advertising — assuming your pop-up shop is any good, that is. 

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How do pop-up stores work?

The basics of setting up a pop-up shop are fairly simple. First, you’ll need to come up with an idea for what you want to focus on during your short window of opportunity — do you want to advertise a brand new product? Is your goal simply to let more people know about the services or products you already offer? Are you hoping to create a fun, memorable, and Instagram-worthy experience? Or is there some other goal you have in mind?

Once that’s all set, you’ll need to find a space to rent. Pop-up shops come in many forms, so you can rent out a traditional storefront, set up a food cart, or rent a kiosk. All in all, the sky’s the limit — if you want to rent out a defunct train car or an old abandoned warehouse (here’s looking at you, Berlin), you can make that happen. 

What’s the average cost of a pop-up shop?

A pop-up shop may be cheaper overall than a traditional store, but it does require a significant investment. According to Popertee, the estimated cost of a pop-up shop that runs for 30 days is €29,084. 

Of these expenses, rent is one of the biggest costs. Inkbox, a tattoo parlor, ran a pop-up shop for two weeks and had to foot an $8,000 rent bill.

Keep in mind, however, that real estate is a highly-localized market, so rent prices may be entirely different in the city or town you’re planning to host your pop-up shop in. Make sure you thoroughly research local retail rent prices so you have a good idea of whether you’ll be able to afford your endeavor before you get too deep into planning it. 

What businesses are a good fit for a pop-up store?

Although pop-up shops are all the rage nowadays, not every business should pour all its funds into one — actually, pretty much no business should pour all their money into one. 

According to EE, a British mobile network operator, the popularity distribution for pop-up shops among different industries is as follows:

  1. Food – 30%
  2. Drink – 18%
  3. Arts and crafts – 15%
  4. Fashion – 12%
  5. Jewelry – 11%

Although this data only tells us what’s most popular and not what actually works, it does appear to provide some useful insights into what seems to work well as a pop-up — after all, if all these shops were failing, their popularity would probably dwindle. 

In general, businesses that offer an experience that can be enjoyed on the spot, like food or drink, are the best fits for pop-up shops. After that come businesses that offer an activity, like arts and crafts. Finally, businesses that run a pop-up shop for clothing or fashion accessories are the least popular according to EE’s data. 

If you think about it, the data makes sense: it seems intuitive that people would be more likely to be strolling through a mall, notice an interesting food pop-up shop, and sit down for a unique experience than they would be to walk into an arts and crafts store. At the absolute bottom of the list, you’d probably find businesses that sell insurance policies, manure, firewood, or something else that’s not much fun. 

Of course, pop-up shops aren’t limited to the five categories listed above, you just need to make sure your business can offer something that will appeal to passersby. A pop-up for a massage studio, a category not included on that list, could probably make a killing setting up shop in a business district and offering low-priced massages to tired and stressed office workers, but a wheat bread pop-up in the middle of a gluten-free festival is going to fall flat on its face, despite the popularity of food pop-ups.

Pop-up shop ideas and types of pop-up shops

Despite the word “shop” in the term, not all pop-up shops are shops. In fact, there are lots of other ways you can “pop up”: pop-up kiosks, pop-up shows, pop-up books — er, scratch that last one. 

Let’s take a look at some ideas and examples for different types of pop up experiences. 

Food pop up 

Let’s be frank: food is popular. Whenever there’s food, people tend to pay attention. Opening a food pop up shop in the middle of a busy shopping mall is bound to attract some interested customers and build awareness of your brand. 

But food pop up shop ideas don’t have to stop with a conventional storefront. Food trucks are also extremely popular, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg — there’s always room for innovation.

Take a recent pop in NYC, for example. Miyoko’s Creamery, a vegan dairy substitutes producer, opened up a food pop up in quite a new and unique way — they hijacked another store! To debut their newest vegan cheddar alternative, Miyoko’s partnered with the Melt Shop. Regular melt shop customers were asked if they’d like to try a new grilled cheese recipe, and after they enjoyed their sandwiches, some saying they were Melt Shop’s best, Miyoko’s sprung the news that they had been eating Miyoko’s vegan cheese the whole time. 

This is a prime example of a unique way to run a food pop up. Not only did Miyoko’s interact with tons of new customers at the pop up itself, but the pop up made waves in the news and social media, drastically increasing its brand awareness, and putting Miyoko’s forth as a leader in the emerging plant-based space. 

Drink pop up

Drinks go hand in hand with food, so it’s no surprise that drink makers are a perfect fit for the pop-up shop trend. Whether you concoct smoothies, craft beers, or roast coffee, opening a pop up can be a great way to grow your business.

Owl’s Nest (@owlsnestboston) has a unique approach to its craft beer pop ups — it doesn’t run pop up shops, but pop up beer gardens. It’s a creative approach to the traditional pop up drink store model, and it’s sure to bring a crowd when the weather gets nice. There are few things people would rather do than have a cold one out in the sun. 

Pop up concert

What’s a nice meal without a little live music? Pop up concerts are a great way to attract an audience, in part because they’re simply hard to ignore! Depending on where you place your show, you can draw a big crowd, so shoot for a place with lots of foot traffic. 

Here’s an example of a show by Monsta X (@official_monsta_x) that was put on by MLS Sound Services (@mls_soundservices) in conjunction with Wild 94.9 (@wild949). 

Pop up art gallery

The visual nature of fine art makes it a prime candidate for a pop up. Art galleries invite passersby to peruse the art and (hopefully) make a purchase. Since this is a bit more of a high-brow endeavor, it’s important to carefully research the area you’re considering hosting your pop up gallery. Vacation areas or art districts will work well, but the center of a shopping mall may yield poorer results. 

LA artist Dave Smith’s (@davesmith_artist) pop up gallery serves as a proof of concept.

Pop up kiosk

Kiosks are not limited to any particular industry. Instead, they’re just a type of space. Kiosks can sometimes save on rent and also help your store standout. Although kiosks aren’t industry-specific, food and drink kiosks seem to perform exceedingly well.

Here’s an example of a food kiosk in Perth. The pop up was organized by Valen Hunter (@popup_with_valen_____) and featured food from Rawgasm Tasty Treats (@rawgasmtreats).

Pop up fashion store

Like art, it’s also easy to peruse through a fashion or pop-up clothing store, checking out and trying on eye-catching items as you make your way through the shop. For that reason, fashion and clothing stores are great pop-up shop candidates.

Here’s an example of a pop-up in Allston, Massachusetts featuring clearance items from Designers Circus (designerscircus). 

How to do a pop-up shop

So, we’ve got a good overview of what a pop-up shop is and how it functions, but how does one actually come up with an idea and execute it? The process can be largely distilled into three steps: planning, location scouting, and design. 

In this section, we’re going to dive deeper into each of these three steps, and give you some tips on how to make your pop up dreams happen. To help make things clearer, we’ll approach this from the point of view of an imaginary small business, Paul’s Pop-up Books, that’s on a mission to open up Paul’s Pop-up Books pop-up shop. What’s our unique angle? We make funny pop-up books for adults that can be personalized to make great gifts.

Planning

The first thing we’ll need to do before any stores come popping up is sit down and make a business plan. That should cover a few items:

  • What are your goals?
  • What roadblocks can you anticipate?
  • How will you measure your success?

Setting goals

Although almost every pop-up shop is primarily concerned with sales, how much money you bring in from your store isn’t the only possible goal you can have. In some cases, like Miyoko’s grilled cheese pop-up shop, the goal was more about creating some buzz and getting the word out about the brand’s new cheese than it was about raking in the Benjamins. 

For our business, however, we’re going to first focus on profit, but brand awareness will also be a big factor — we don’t want this to be a loss chalked up to an advertising expense, but we also don’t need to make boatloads of cash.

So, we’re going to need to figure out how much it’s going to cost for us to pull off this shindig, and then figure out how many books we need to sell for it to make a profit.

Let’s do some quick napkin math. Let’s assume this shop is going to cost us $15,000 to run for two weeks. If we sell each book for $30 with a 33% profit margin, we’ll make $10.00 per sale, and we’d need to sell 1,500 books to break even. If we go further and say that we want to make $15,000 profit then we’ll need to sell 3,000 books. 

In addition, we also want to try to grow our Instagram following by 1,000 people at least. So, we’re going to include a background to take photos in front of, and think of a catchy hashtag — #popupbookpopupshop will do. 

Considering roadblocks

The first thing we’re going to need to think about is who our audience is. We’re in a unique position: adult pop-up books are not an established industry like food, drink, or fashion, and that means we’re going to need to come up with a mighty good reason that passersby should take time out of their days visit our shop, let alone buy something. 

Our solution is going to be to time the market. Our books are perfectly geared towards gifts, but they’re not quite the type of gifts you’d want to give around Christmas. Instead, we’ll open our shop around February, and focus our shop around our more romantic selection. Customers will be able to order books that are customized with their and their partner’s names. 

We’ll also want to make sure we’re in a heavily trafficked area where buyers are already on the hunt for gifts. A mall is our first choice location. 

Measuring and evaluating success

Having a plan is all well and good, but we’re going to need to have some metrics to help us measure how things are going once we’re on the ground. If things aren’t going according to plan, these metrics will help change course accordingly. 

Obviously, the first thing we’re going to need to consider is sales. As the two-week period progresses, we’re going to want to constantly check in and determine whether we’re on track to meet our goal of selling 3,000 books. 

Next, we’ll also want to ensure our Instagram follower count is steadily growing. For that, we can simply look at how many followers we have, but we’ll also want to look at other KPI’s like how many photos we’re tagged in and how many posts there are for the #popupbookpopupshop hashtag.

How to find a pop-up shop space

We’ve already decided that a shopping mall is our ideal location, so that narrows things down for us a bit. Now, we’re going to need to look for kiosk space or storefront space in a heavily trafficked mall. 

There are two ways to do this: contacting malls directly or looking for a rental listing on our own. 

Luckily for us, we’re in the age of the internet, so we can easily find pop-up rental spaces online. Some sites include:

Many of these sites will let us filter by type of property (mall space, in our case), what it’s located near, etc. 

Design: Making the pop-up pop

If we want to get a sweet piece of the foot-traffic pie, we’ll need an appealing store design — no one is going to want to walk into a grey, dingy shop covered in cobwebs with a piece of paper that says “Paul’s Pop-Up Books” written in crayon — although that does sound intriguing in some dark kind of way. 

To attract visitors, we’re going to need to make sure our pop-up shop’s design, well, pops. Since we’re trying to corner the Valentine’s Day market, we’re going to start by painting the outside red — that will ensure that it not only stands out, but will make it clear, given the time of year, that we’re focused on Valentine’s Day.

Ideally, we’re going to want a mobile booth of sorts, and we’ll want something out front to grab passersby attention through social proof — that’s a prime place to put our selfie area. When people go to take selfies, mall-goers will take notice. We’ll also place a podium with an example of one of our books right next to the door, so shoppers who are debating whether they want to pop their heads in can see what we’re offering — sort of like a menu outside of a restaurant.

Inside, we’ll want to ensure we have a clean layout that directs the shopper through the experience and doesn’t leave them guessing where to look for the product that’s most relevant to them. 

We can achieve this by having clear signs that designate the different sections of our shop. In our case, those will be topics and interests. So, shoppers who want to buy a pop-up book for their music-aficionado partner can go to the music section, and shoppers who want to buy a book for their sports-obsessed significant other (or S.O. S.O. for short) can go to the sports section. We’ll put our register right smack dab in the center so that the walls can be entirely filled with books.

Every business will need to consider their own unique needs when designing the layout of their shop. As a bookstore, we have no need for tables and chairs or a cooking area, but a food pop-up will need to think about where to place all that for the optimal customer experience. 

Promoting your pop-up

Once you’ve got all your plans for your pop-up set out, your work doesn’t stop there. Next, it’s time to promote your shop and get the word out. Here’s how to get started. 

Choose your channels

Every business has limited resources and that means you can’t target every marketing channel. Sure, it would be great to run a commercial during the Super Bowl and buyout every screen in Times Square, but as a small business that simply isn’t going to happen — and if it does, please call us and tell us how you did it! 

One of the biggest challenges in marketing is picking out the right channels to pursue: do you want to focus your efforts on social media, search engine marketing, traditional advertising, earned media (press and news outlets), or something else entirely? 

The answer will be different for everyone and will depend on your target audience. For us here at Paul’s Pop-Up Books, our market is millennials, so we’re going to focus on social media, flyers, a bit of traditional media, and earned media. 

Flyers

Pop-up shops are real-world experiences, so no matter what type of store you have, you’re going to want to make sure you have some type of presence out in the real world. Flyers are cheap, effective, and will catch the attention of people who are out in the world doing things, like going to stores. That’s the audience you want to capture, after all — it’d be a waste to spend your entire marketing budget on digital advertisements only to find out that the only people you reached never leave the house. 

Flyers won’t cost you very much, but they can take some time to post. Ideally, you’ll hire a designer to make a killer design for you, but if you want to do it on your own, here’s what you should focus on:

 

  • Make it stand out: The first thing you need to do is grab someone’s attention. Colors work nicely, as do loud patterns and designs (tastefully, of course). Often simple but catchy text that makes someone laugh will work just as well as colors — laughter is a strong response. In our case, we’re going to make our flyer red, and use the slogan “It’s ‘bout to pop off!”

 

  • Provide your UVP (unique value proposition): Now that you’ve piqued someone’s interest, you’ll need to follow that up with a reason they should stay interested. What is your pop-up shop going to offer that they won’t be able to find anywhere else? In our case, we’re going to say something like: “Pop-up books aren’t just for kids anymore. Our raunchy, rude, and slightly offensive customizable pop-up books make the perfect Valentine’s Gift for the lovable weirdo in your life. Come check us out at our pop-up shop — it’s ‘bout to pop off!” 
  • Make it clear where the pop-up takes place: So, you’ve grabbed their interest, and the reader wants to visit your pop-up store. Next, you’ll need to tell them how to get there. Include dates and hours in large text that you can’t miss somewhere on the flyer. This is in many ways the most important step — if you mess this part up, you’ll have an interested customer that won’t ever make it into your store. 
  • Add your social media links: Somewhere on your flyer, make sure to include some ways to connect with your brand. Include the social media platforms you want to target the most. You can even consider including a QR code, if you want to get fancy.

Once you’ve got your flyer designed, approach local businesses to see if they’ll post it, and check your local laws to see where you can put your flyers.

Traditional media

Traditional media includes magazines, newspapers, radio, and TV. This type of advertising can be pricey, but we think it’s worth considering for pop-up shops. Placing an ad in a local magazine or newspaper can attract some significant attention. For our shop, we’re not going to go overboard, but we will take out a few ads in a local newspaper and magazine.

Social media

For our needs at Paul’s Pop-Up Books, we’re going to focus on influencer marketing and paid ads. 

Our business is at a disadvantage because we don’t have a clearly defined niche — who’s interested in adult pop-up books? So, to start, we’re going to research influencers whose fanbases may be interested in gift ideas. Since we’re targeting the Valentine’s Day crowd, we’ll look for influencers who give relationship advice. That way, we’ll know that their followers are likely in the market for a Valentine’s Day gift. When you’ve found a few in your area, reach out, and see if you can make some Insta-magic happen.

As far as paid ads are concerned, we’re going to use Facebook’s ad manager to construct a custom audience that meets our target demographic: 18+, in a relationship, already like other gift brands (Hallmark, for example), and offline buyers. These are all options in the custom audience builder. We’ll also make a second audience that’s exactly the same, except will add the “photo uploaders” option so that we can attempt to attract people who will be likely to upload a selfie. 

Earned media

Finally, we’re going to attempt to tackle earned media. This usually starts with a press release: a short description of your event, and why it’s interesting that’s aimed at newspapers and other publications. 

Once you have your press release sorted, you’ll need to start looking for local newspapers and any other type of publication that could be interested in doing a feature on your business. Local newspapers and magazines will be your best friends here, as that’s where you’ll be most likely to find locals who are interested in attending new and interesting events in the area. 

Wrapping up and evaluating your success

As you can surely tell by now, running a pop-up shop is no walk in the park. Once it’s all over, you’ll need to regroup and take a look at what worked, and what didn’t: did you meet your sales figures? Did your brand awareness grow?

No matter what happens, take it as a lesson for the future, and think about how you can improve on your attempt. Even if your store was a total disaster this time around, there’s always next time, so don’t write pop-up shops off just because of one attempt. 

Knowing how to run a pop-up shop is a skill like any other, and if the popularity of these short-term shops keeps growing at the rate it has been recently, it’s definitely a skill worth honing. 

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