The world of the pop-up store looked as if it might be ephemeral, but this corner of retail is looking stronger than ever. John Ryan reports.

Pop-ups have been around for what seems like an age, and there must be at least a mild suspicion that they have had their day. Surely the concept is now little more than an in-store promotion as retailers send out releases detailing how they have installed a pop-up in one of their branches? Maybe so, but a quick look around this summer reveals the fact that far from being a cul-de-sac as far as retail is concerned, the road ahead does seem to include pop-ups in their original standalone form as much as ever.

The other point worth noting is that in many cases they have become slicker. When they first appeared, pop-ups were retail’s agitprop kids, and came complete with a rough and ready patina as if they had been constructed quickly from whatever was to hand (and in many cases this was the case), with only a momentary thought given to the finished store’s design credentials. Today, things have changed. Pop-ups remain largely a marketing tool rather than a commercial proposition, but they are more carefully considered. And the increasing prominence of retail’s big guns on the pop-up scene has meant that more money is being spent on fit-outs and shoppers are offered temporary stores that may actually, on occasions, be better than permanent shops.

Tesco Finest Wine Bar, Soho

Tesco Wine Bar 1

The Tesco Finest Wine Bar, Soho

The Tesco Finest Wine Bar raises awareness of its top-tier offer

This is not strictly a shop insofar as it is a wine bar, but what Tesco has done is to take its ‘Finest’ wines and offer them in the kind of environment that you’d expect on Soho’s Wardour Street. While this is a pure marketing exercise and there can be little expectation that it will yield substantial turnover, it will raise awareness about the wines that form the top tier of Tesco’s wine offer.

Bryan Roberts, insights director at TCC Global, says: “I think it’s a very effective use of marketing budget in terms of making clear how extensive and impressive the ‘Finest’ wine range is. I think the ‘wine flights’ (three glasses of different wines) is a particularly good idea.”

The Tesco Finest Wine Bar is very short-term – it opened on August 2 at midday and will be all done by the 13th – but it makes its mark by exception. Wardour Street is by no means the most aspirational Soho thoroughfare in terms of its retail and dining tenants, but a Tesco wine bar does stand out by being a little slice of the mass market in an area where independents and small chains are more the order of the day. It also occupies a unit that had lain empty for some time.

A quick look around this summer reveals the fact that far from being a cul-de-sac as far as retail is concerned, the road ahead does seem to include pop-ups in their original standalone form as much as ever

One of the things that Tesco has done is to put selected wines on blackboards on the walls with details about their provenance, creating, in effect, 3D murals. Other elements that show the care that has been taken in this store include a white neon ‘Finest’ sign on the way to the lavatories and monochrome pictures of vineyards, southern European vistas and suchlike, all of which lend an appropriate ambiance. Silver pendant lights above a zinc-topped bar complete the picture.

Robot Brands, Old Street

The underground concourse just beyond Old Street tube station on the Northern Line has become a focus for pop-ups over the past couple of years. Almost every week new names appear and then disappear as start-ups and more established retail names seek to make their mark on the tech-savvy crowd that pass through this station on a daily basis. Robot Brands, a Los Angeles clothing and accessories lifestyle brand, is one of the latest to test the water with a store in this location that will trade for the remainder of this month.

Robot Brands 1

Robot Brands

Robot Brands has resided at Old Street’s underground concourse.

Among other things, this low-cost but futuristic interior has a life-sized version of Uri the robot – a robot-branded whisky dispenser – and customised skateboards, all of which are almost de rigueur as far as creating a different proposition in this part of east London is concerned. According to Robot Brands’ co-founder Carole Kavanagh: “Robots are on track to become part of everyday life in the very near future, and our brand is unique in its focus on the lifestyle aspects of this seismic cultural shift.” Perhaps, but for passing shoppers what really marks this one out is a shop-fit that has an outsize circuitboard printed on the floor and a time tunnel-style geometric arch through which shoppers can pass en route to a retro-modern egg chair at the back of the shop.

The fact that Boxpark is set to open in Croydon and will be run along broadly the same lines as the Shoreditch original shows that this pop-up and the concept as a whole is most definitely here to stay

Pret Little Veggie

Sometimes pop-ups endure and in the case of the vegetarian version of a Pret A Manger store on Soho’s Broadwick Street, this looks as if it might be about to happen. Originally planned to be a research tool to assess the market’s readiness for a more vegetarian options at Pret stores, Little Veggie’s lease of life has been extended from a June-only proposition to the whole of the summer (although when summer ends in this instance is something of a moot point).

Practically speaking, this is a Pret A Manger store where the frontage is green, rather than the standard maroon, but inside it does look like a standard Pret.

According to Pret A Manger chief executive Clive Schlee, the expectation had been that converting an existing store into the Little Veggie Pret would mean a fall in sales. Yet turnover is running more than 70% ahead of the same period in 2015, meaning that thinking caps have been donned about the future of what could become a new format.

Pret Little Veggie Broadwick Street fascia

Pret Little Veggie Broadwick Street fascia

Pret A Manger’s Little Veggie stores are all-vegetarian and have endured longer than the average pop-up.

This is one of the simplest pop-ups in London at the moment, as nothing has been changed other than the fascia and product mix. It is however, one of the more telling brand extensions and serves to show how powerful pop-ups are as a means of gathering rapid information about a new route for an existing and highly successful brand.

Boxpark, Shoreditch

A stone’s throw from the Old Street pop-up collective is Boxpark, which has been around since 2011. This proves the longevity of the pop-up concept, as since opening it has seen very regular changes of tenants and is now a destination for ‘brand activations’ – or put in standard English – a retailer or brand that is seeking to raise awareness of its offering with a temporary showroom-cum-shop. Lately, this has meant everything from a one-day event by Virgin Holidays in which potential holidaymakers were given the chance to ’Try before you buy’ courtesy of Virtual Vegas, to another wine store offering, this time from Aldi.

The Aldi Wine Store was in place from May 26 to 28 and was timed to coincide with London Wine Week – showing that the really smart brands not only take elements of their ranges and highlight them, but also look at how they can ride on the back of popular events. In this instance, there were 20 wines that could be sampled, compared to more than 70 at the Tesco Wine Bar, but this still garnered extensive consumer awareness for the retailer.

Aldi Wine Boxpark 1

The Aldi Wine Store at Boxpark

The Aldi Wine Store at Boxpark was a success, coinciding with the London Wine Week in May.

The fact that Boxpark is set to open in Croydon and will be run along broadly the same lines as the Shoreditch original shows that this pop-up and the concept as a whole is most definitely here to stay.

Pop-ups – the state of play

  • Big brands have become part of the pop-up world.
  • ‘Brand activations’ (aka profile raising) are often the essential purpose of a pop-ups.
  • It is questionable whether in-store pop-ups are anything other than promotions.
  • Standalone pop-ups are becoming slicker and have more money spent on them.
  • As a way of testing the market, some pop-ups are becoming permanent stores.