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From pop-up stores to brick and mortar

SINGAPORE — Emerging in various forms — whether it be a store-within-a-store, a stand-alone kiosk, a tiny space under a tent or even a food truck — pop-up stalls are the offbeat cousins to online stores and are now the go-to choice for brands, given the tough retail climate.

A Naiise Christmas Pop-Up 2014. Photo: Naiise

A Naiise Christmas Pop-Up 2014. Photo: Naiise

SINGAPORE — Emerging in various forms — whether it be a store-within-a-store, a stand-alone kiosk, a tiny space under a tent or even a food truck — pop-up stalls are the offbeat cousins to online stores and are now the go-to choice for brands, given the tough retail climate.

Pop-ups, after all, provide the best of both worlds: The space for consumers to see and touch the products, and a sense of exclusivity, given its impermanence.

For some, attempts to break into the industry pay off, and they end up with a more permanent presence in a mall.


Take Naiise. What started in 2013 as an online platform for people to discover original Singapore-designed products became a pop-up stall — the first on the rooftop of People’s Park Complex in 2014. That year, the shop launched a 3,000sqf pop-up at Orchard Central and another for Christmas. Their first physical store in Westgate mall was rolled out a few months later, followed by two other outlets — all in the span of four months. Naiise now boasts six stores islandwide.

Home furnishing and lifestyle shop HomesToLife shares a similar story. It began as a pop-up in 112 Katong in March last year, but its success enticed the brand to set up a permanent store there on July 2. The store also rolled out a four-storey flagship on Mohamed Sultan Road in March.

Phua Bo Wen, HomesToLife’s senior manager of retail excellence, said they were looking for a store location with exposure to their target group and the pop-up store “ticks all the right boxes with immediate available space, lower set-up capital expenditure, and no need for long-term leases at a new location which could be a deterrent to new start-up brands”.

Phua revealed the experience with the pop-up store helped when it came to planning for the flagship. “We took in all the feedback that we have gotten from the ground at the pop-up store and used it to improve ourselves in all aspects, from operational details to store design, visual merchandising and customer services.”

One of the pioneers in the scene is homegrown design collective Keepers, which was launched in November 2011 as a quarterly pop-up featuring five to six designers and artisans. Three years later, its founder Carolyn Kan (also the designer behind artisan jewellery Carrie K) rolled out Keepers: Singapore Designer Collective together with the Textile and Fashion Federation, and occupied a space on Orchard Road.

“I realised that most Singaporeans and overseas visitors were not aware of the growing pool of independent designers, artists and artisans in Singapore because we were scattered all over the island. The idea behind building the Keepers pop-up ... was to make it easier and more accessible for people to discover local talent,” said Kan.

The move was so well-received that the pop-up, which was supposed to be there for five months, ended up staying for 16.

Still, it was not meant to be a permanent feature, as it was only intended to introduce people to Singaporean designers, said Kan. But the popularity was too hard to ignore, and Kan began receiving questions from people about where they could find Singaporean designers.

“There is demand for unique designs that are well made. The guests (gave) feedback that they really appreciated the curation of strong Singapore designers and artisans and were surprised with the diversity and calibre of local talent they discovered at Keepers,” she noted. So they tendered for a space in National Design Centre and secured a three-year tenure.

“My experience with the pop-up definitely gave me the confidence and know-how to launch Keepers as a permanent venture. I gained a greater understanding of the challenges faced by retailers in order for us to create a model that we could sustain,” she said.


But with the retail scene in the doldrums, is it a wise move to be making the transition to a physical store?

“There will be risks and opportunities, whether the economy is buoyant or soft,” mused Kan. “The important thing is to have a realistic business plan for that environment, and to create an experience that people are willing to forego the convenience of online shopping to leave their homes for. And most importantly, you must have a very clear idea of who your customer is and how your product and experience are adding value to their life,” she stressed.

Dr Brian Lee, head of the communication programme at SIM University’s School of Arts and Social Sciences, said moving to a physical shop “is a natural way of growth for businesses”.

“Many pop-up stores are there to test new products or new locations. If the products prove to respond well among the consumers, they will have the confidence to establish a physical retail shop,” he said, adding that it was a cheaper way to see how consumers react to their products. Furthermore, he said, a pop-up store “provides retailers a good platform to create awareness and word-of-mouth among consumers”.

Agreeing, Naiise’s founder Dennis Tay said their pop-ups were an economical way for “a young, bootstrapped e-commerce start-up” to quickly build brand awareness and grow a customer base.

The strong demand for their goods and the fact that a growing number of customers made their way to their pop-ups — which could be held in fairly out-of-the-way locations — proved their retail offering was strong enough for a permanent store, he said.

However, the physical store has to provide something different, given that it no longer has a pop-up’s “novelty” effect to attract customers, he noted. “Consumers are looking for differentiated retail experiences and greater consumer convenience, and it is important to consistently innovate to stay relevant to today’s sophisticated shopper.”

In Naiise’s case, they provided “interesting and unique products, a highly personal shopping experience and retail-entertainment offerings such as revolving F&B concepts and workshops that help create a highly sensory experience for our customers”, Tay added.

Similarly, Phua said their time as a pop-up affirmed their decision after they had a chance to analyse their consumers and their shopping habits. “(It) ultimately firmed up our belief that our brand concept and products work for the demographics that frequented the mall,” 
he said.

“We believe that customers still like to experience shopping in a brick- and-mortar store when buying big-ticket items like furniture.”


Adrian Chan, director of PopUp Angels — a platform that helps retailers find and rent short-term retail space in Singapore — agrees that physical stores still have their place.

“Many e-commerce businesses are now realising that a physical store can be an excellent complement to their online platforms. It has also become an important component of their customer acquisition strategy. This is why you are seeing even big e-commerce companies such as Amazon, Ebay, and Zalora utilising pop-up stores,” he pointed out.

Physical stores, he explained, enable e-commerce businesses to do things which would be difficult through purely online means, such as showcasing their products, or observing customer interactions.

“Pop-up stores can also allow retailers to reach new customer segments. For example, there is still a large segment of consumers that would like to touch and feel a product before purchasing them,” he added.

Since setting up the platform in November, Chan has seen a “promising” response, and has helped more than 100 brands and retailers find space and set up pop-up stores.

Koh Cheng Guan, strategic marketing manager at Invade Industry, which runs, another online retail rental booking platform for pop-up stores, said “a prime spot doesn’t necessarily translate to profit and revenue these days”.

“Having a pop-up shop would definitely give the owners more confidence as, more often than not, landlords are asking for a market rate that makes a typical brick-and-mortar shop tough to survive and expand,” he added.

Needless to say, the pop-up trend is here to stay — for now.

“Pop-up stores are creative ways for us to explore collaborations and events with like-minded creative businesses within a space that celebrates community gathering. For example, Naiise has previously organised two Christmas pop-up stores in 2014 and last year to great success, and will likely continue doing so in the near future,” said Tay.

“As long as the products (or brands) are not something that can be easily found online with cheaper prices, pop-up retail will continue to provide a win-win-win solution for the retailers, consumers and the mall owners,” said Dr Lee.

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