Pop Goes The Bridal Salon?

When a temporary retail store pops up in major cities or small towns, it creates a buzz.  
    What’s happening in this space? What are they selling? Why did they sprout here? Are they talking to me?
    A pop-up is defined as a retail store that “pops up” for a limited period of time, whether it be one day or several months. Less commonly referred to as “flash retail”, these temporary stores can be housed in a vacant retail space, the common open area of a mall, a huge warehouse or the great outdoors.
    And once viewed as fly-by-night operations, pop-ups are seen in a different light these days. Not only are they increasing in popularity but the pop-up store’s latest incarnations are typically billed as “experiences” and “events” rather than just someplace with merchandise to sell. Increasingly, this concept is becoming more acceptable to shoppers who are looking for an experience not just a product. Nowhere is this more applicable than in the bridal world, where the customer experience means everything.

Old Concept, New Approach
    The pop-up model itself has been around for decades, says Melissa Gonzalez, founder of the Lion’esque Group, a firm of pop-up architects, and author of “The Pop Up Paradigm: How Brands Build Human Connections in a Digital Age” (Lioncrest Publishing, 2014).  
    “The best examples are Halloween stores or Christmas tree stores, seasonal businesses that don’t have storefronts year-round,” says Gonzalez, who is also a retail strategist. “Then we started seeing a lot of smaller, emerging brands do it as way to bridge the gap of e-commerce, having a physical presence but not signing a long-term lease. Now it has evolved to a business strategy for companies, as part of their go-to-market strategy.”
    Indeed, brands are using the pop-up model as a huge focus group to learn, to educate, to get customer data, and to test a new market, Gonzalez says.
    “The reasons for using it have evolved so that you see it being utilized across industries, everything from food to apparel to technology,” she says.
    Today’s shopper is quite familiar with the pop-up concept. They buy meals from pop-up restaurants and ever-moving food trucks. They discover new brands or products at temporary retail spots in flea markets and cultural events.
    There’s a thriving pop-culture in many major cities. Smaller towns have been the testing ground for national brands, both online and brick-and-mortar. New York City and Los Angeles – where the current pop-up wave started – have a strong pop-up culture for both emerging and established brands.
    For larger companies the pop-up offers a chance to do something outside of the box and see how that experiment is received by shoppers. For example, a pop-up might feature interactive electronics or live product demonstrations. This past holiday season, Minnesota-based Target created a multi-acre Target Wonderland, replete with interactive stations for shoppers in the Big Apple.
    In smaller cities and towns, the pop-up often takes the form of a converted bus selling original fashion – sort of a fashion food truck – or tents that are pitched for a few hours or a few days in whatever open space is available, sometimes as a peripheral to an art, music or food festival. National brands have also tested out new product or merchandising schemes outside major markets.
    Pop-ups often piggyback on major events in cities such as New York Fashion Week and music festivals. Merchants count on foot traffic generated by these events of a specific demographic. For example, H&M created what was described as “the ultimate pop-up experience” at Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Southern California. The interactive store at Coachella spotlighted the chain’s H&M Loves Music collection, and offered free hair and cosmetic services.
    Pop-ups are one way for online retailers to have a physical presence, Gonzalez notes. When vacancy rates were high in shopping malls, these retailers took advantage of the opportunity to open temporary spaces.
    Indeed, the genesis of the pop-up store as an entity began eight to 10 years ago, when economic conditions left much commercial property abandoned and landlords desperate. Vacancy rates were high and as such building owners became open to short-term rental propositions. Pop-up merchants were allowed – even encouraged - to lease a space for a much shorter period of time than the customary yearlong or multi-year lease. After all, from the property owner’s perspective, some income was better than no income.  
    On the flip side, for pop-up retailers, the shorter commitment worked because they could test out a retail concept, introduce new product, sell off excess merchandise from a permanent retail store, or try out different marketing methods with much lower risk.
    And the concept also benefited consumers, many of whom desire that “see it, touch it, try it” experience before buying. Although online shopping has increased in popularity, there is still a significant group of consumers who want an idea of what they’re getting into before buying.
    Pop-up retail has become so prevalent, in fact, that it’s part of the culture of many companies. Online specialty foods purveyor Eat Boutique, for example, schedules a series of pop-up events throughout the year. Most recently they hosted a holiday market in Boston and a restaurant-based event in New York City surrounding Valentine’s Day.     

Application to Bridal
    Bridal retail has seen pop-up competition in many forms, from the one-day shop selling off excess merchandise to the temporary showrooms that appear within or adjacent to bridal markets. Retailers often stage their own pop-up, without thinking of their off-site event in those terms: think a trial run when considering expansion or adding a whole new product category.
    How much competition is someone else’s pop-up store to your permanent store? That really depends on the pop-up. If it’s a temporary retail space with a rack or two of gowns to sell off, it probably isn’t serious competition for your brides. If curious brides check out this kind of store, it’s likely to be the bride who is looking for a bargain or just attracted to the novelty of the concept. Most brides do want the whole bridal experience and the expertise that comes with a full-service brick-and-mortar store with a solid reputation in the community.
    So how do you counteract what pop-ups do? And is that even necessary? While marketing experts say that any form of retail that sells bridal and formalwear merchandise should be viewed as competition, the reality is that most pop-ups are resident for a very brief time and the chief attraction is the novelty factor.
    But what about making the concept work for you? In the bridal world, pop-ups, by any name, have always been an option when a business has limited space for event production. Additional rented space can be transformed into an appropriate showcase for a trunk show or special event you can’t accommodate in the permanent shop. Instead of showing at a bridal fair with hundreds of other vendors, independent retailers have staged their own mini fairs with their referral or working partners.
    Stores also have done pop-ups when considering expanding into a new category. A good example is the “prom shop” that resides in a separate retail space for two or three months during prime prom-shopping season. It’s a way to assess how much interest can be generated, what teens want from the experience, and how the logistics differ from bridal.
    The pop-up is yet another way to introduce your store and brand to the bridal shopper. Because many brides have been introduced to multi-vendor, large-crowd bridal shows in huge venues, the idea of getting a taste of what your store has to offer on a more intimate scale can be intriguing. The pop-event on a more personal level also serves to humanize the experience while adding some fun to the shopping equation.

Jumping In Feet First
    The first step in creating your own pop-up is to determine your overall goals.
    “Retailers need to determine their brand promise and their customer targets because your brand promise to your customers impacts how you address your goals,” Gonzalez says.  
    What are you promising? Why will it be intriguing to your target customer? Will you be able to deliver on that promise? How difficult will it be to stock and staff? Are you promoting product or giving a taste of the bridal shopping/pampering experience?
    Remember, a pop-up event itself may look spontaneous, but the creation and execution takes strategic planning. Key elements are location, timing, display, stock and staffing, and promotion. As well, a pop-up shop is not inexpensive, Gonzalez says. A lot depends on the space you choose. If it’s a long-vacant space that is essentially bare bones, ask yourself how much decorating and outfitting will you have to do? If you don’t mind doing your own draping and lighting, hauling in fixtures, display pieces and racks of garments, costs can be reduced considerably.
    Before you rush headlong into a pop-up venture, Gonzalez also advises looking at your marketing/promotional schedule and budget for the year. Will you have to increase your budget to accommodate a pop-up or will a pop-up event replace something else you do traditionally during the year?
    Pop-ups need to be promoted heavily to your target shoppers. For example, use a hashtag throughout the pop-up’s duration so you can track who is hearing and talking about it and engage with them further, Gonzalez suggests. Another idea is to create a calendar of events and campaigns so you have different points of buzz, whether it’s VIP customer influence, bloggers, social media or other channels.
    Bridal retailers told VOWS that they’ve tried pop-ups with mixed success. Typically, they did pop-up for categories other than bridal attire. Sometimes the pop-up essentially is a mini bridal fair without the participation of other bridal retailers, but bringing in related wedding businesses.
    Another reason to open a pop-up store is to test the waters in a new area before adding a second location. Many bridal retailers have used space outside their permanent stores where they could offer discontinued or sale merchandise. The idea was to maintain their brand image while still garnering some income from those aging samples.
    Timing is critical for a pop-up. In some cases, you want to capitalize on traffic being generated by events in the area, traditional shopping patterns, or shopping prompted by a recent engagement, at Christmas or Valentine’s Day, for example. It’s probably not advisable to take on a pop-up in your busiest months when a second location would demand time taken from the main store.
    Planning pop-ups well in advance allows you to plan the promotional schedule for the event as well. Ideally you’ll be able to create a social-media buzz and or a VIP vibe about the event. This is especially effective when hosting an off-site bridal event that calls on relationships with other vendors. If you’re offering opportunities like free facials, makeup demonstrations, or cake or menu tastings in conjunction with the pop-up, you can offer VIP passes to your brides, for example.
    The main lesson for bridal retailers here is simple: Don’t fear the pop-up. Rather, embrace the possibilities of this continuously emerging niche. Consider urging your staff to scout retail events in fashion and other merchandise categories that happen in your market area. Visiting a pop-up in person can be a wake-up call for your staff about the importance of keeping the excitement and energy level up in the store. As well, getting outside the store and working a special event can pay dividends. Great ideas for in-store activities and merchandising are often born of event production.
    You can enter the pop-up world on any small scale, and do it your way. It’s a chance to experiment and yet another way to get customer feedback about what they want and need from your store. And that alone is something to celebrate!

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