With Further Ado #027: Pop-Up Pop Culture

Pop-Ups are one of the most fascinating, and most fun, trends in retail.  You know this concept even if you don’t think you know it.

There was a great disruption when American retail shifted from traditional downtown storefronts to malls. And more recently, disruptive retail shifts from malls to online shook it up again. As a result, the whole concept of zombie malls, those shambling, empty malls that serve as ominous monuments to the excess of the 80s, are frightening and tragic.

Today, even with the emphasis on online commerce, there’s another shift called Pop-Up retailing. At the core of it all, this term refers to the phenomenon of online retailers opening temporary retail stores to energize their brands and drive excitement for consumers.

The idea starts with the practice of setting up temporary retail establishments, but it certainly doesn’t end there. 

In her book, The Pop-Up Paradigm, Melissa Gonzalez (she owns a Pop-Up consultancy called the Lion’esque Group) talks about how retailers have embraced omni-channel strategies. This means they try everything, including Pop-Ups.

Other businesses are getting into the act too. A Pop-Up might be a temporary, seasonal retail outlet like those Spirits Halloween stores you may have seen in the fall. A Pop-Up may also be a branding gimmick – like when Charmin famously opened a Pop-Up showroom, or was it a restroom, in busy Times Square a few years ago. 

I contend that conventions and tradeshows are Pop-Ups too. In many ways, they are modern day bazaars. Conventions essentially create micro-cities that promote commerce, and then evaporate in the blink of an eye.  Even a tsetse fly, with their notoriously short lifespans, could attend three or four conventions.

In the world of Geek Culture, there’s a Pop-Up opportunity that’s seized upon by the nation’s comic book shops. And it’s an opportunity that’s not available to similar retailers, like conventional bookstores. Many comic shops, both small and large, augment their revenue by running Pop-Ups at comic conventions. 

It seems that no matter where you live in the US, there’s a bunch of comic conventions happening every weekend. 

In today’s omni-channel world, store owners might have a retail location, or retail locations, while they sell online, and then – in addition – they buy exhibitor’s booths and sell at comic cons.

Midtown Comics is a leading Geek Culture retailer. Their three locations in New York City are frequented by locals and by commuters who work in Manhattan. Midtown Comics has also become a “must see” for tourists.  Comic fans visiting NYC, both domestic and international, always put the Midtown Comics visit on their list, sometimes even above the Statue of Liberty or Empire State Building. Beyond their physical store, they’ve also created a collector-friendly marketplace for new comics and merchandise as well as vintage back issues and collectibles.

There’s also something very important about the “experience effect” of selling at conventions. You that each convention is a mecca where fans gather together, share stories and celebrate the treasures they’ve discovered.

But beyond that, Midtown Comics pops up each year at the nation’s biggest comic convention, the New York Comic Con. From the exhibition floor of NYCC, they typically move a lot of merchandise and reinforce their brand – inviting fans to their stores and to their site.

Both Ends of the Spectrum

Thomas Yeldon is also a hard-working entrepreneur. He’s the owner of two Larger Than Life comic shops in central New York state. He also adds to his revenue (but subtracts from his downtime) by exhibiting at conventions.

It’s not as easy as it looks. Yeldon talks about how it’s been a learning experience. “It took us a while to figure it out. We’ve been doing it for years, but there is still a lot of trial and error,” said Yeldon. “I didn’t feel confident until last year.  After almost 10 solid years, we finally got it down.” 

He touched upon the myriad of things to figure out and to anticipate. For each show, he must forecast the revenue opportunity and balance it out with the projected costs:  travel, hotel, exhibitor fees, staffing and of course inventory. 

“I take every situation as new. They are all different.” Yeldon explained the importance of offering the right stuff for each convention. “If it’s a toy show, I bring comics. If it’s a comic show, I bring toys.”  Offering something unique, or just something different, is important in the competitive retail environment of a convention.

One of the courses I’m teaching at Ithaca College’s school of Business this semester is focused on Pop-Ups. Stay tuned – we’ll be discussing this business trend more.