Ghalia BOUSTANI. Senior retail consultant at Univers Retail | Published author | Visiting lecturer.

From Pop-Up Stores to Seamless Experiences

The economic recession of 2008 shifted attention towards alternative retailing formats like pop-up stores. Brands must continuously find new ways to connect with customers and present their offerings in relevant ways. Pop-up stores can be a valuable tool but must align with a brand’s overall strategy and relevance to the local market.

In the ever-changing landscape of the retail industry, the question of what makes a retail format special has become more pertinent than ever. Is it the products it offers or the way it shapes customer experiences? In today’s dynamic market, retailers must adapt and innovate to capture the attention of customers who are constantly seeking novelty and excitement. 


This article explores the evolution of retail formats, from single-product stores of the late 1800s to the rise of pop-up stores and the pursuit of seamless customer experiences in the digital age.

The Evolution of Retail Formats

The history of retail formats can be traced back to the late 1800s when single-product stores dominated the townscape. However, the emergence of department stores revolutionized the retail landscape by offering diverse products and brands under one roof. This shift allowed retailers to reach rural areas, overcoming the disadvantage of distance from city shopping centres.

Efficiency became a prevailing trend after World War I, leading to mass retailing and the rise of warehousing and discount stores. This new retail model focused on competitive pricing, volume, and cost efficiency. While direct marketing and online retailing emerged in the 20th century, retail continued to evolve by building on previous formats while enhancing the customer experience.

The Retail Theatre

In the contemporary landscape of retail literature, the prevailing emphasis centres on the concept of store experiences, retail experiences, and the paradigm of experiential retailing. This shift towards prioritizing experiences in the retail world can be best understood through the lens of the “experience economy”, as articulated by Pine and Gilmore. Their metaphorical representation of this evolution, using the analogy of a birthday cake, vividly illustrates this progression. In the past, during the agrarian economy era, mothers meticulously crafted birthday cakes from basic farm commodities, incurring minimal costs. 

As society transitioned into the goods-based industrial economy, convenience led parents to opt for premixed ingredients from brands like Betty Crocker, paying a slightly higher price for this convenience. Subsequently, in the era of the service economy, busy parents chose to outsource the entire birthday event by purchasing pre-made cakes from bakeries or grocery stores, often at a significantly higher cost than the sum of individual ingredients. In the fast-paced environment of the 1990s, parents went a step further, relinquishing even the task of organizing the celebration itself, willing to spend $100 or more to “outsource” the entire event. This transformation was tantamount to staging a memorable event for their children, with the cake often included as part of the package.

It is essential to recognize that experiences transcend the realm of mere services. True experiential retailing comes to life when brands skillfully utilize their physical spaces, props, and products to captivate and engage customers in a manner that culminates in a truly unforgettable event. It’s about forging a personal connection with customers and meticulously orchestrating these experiences over time. In this context, a brand transcends its role as a mere “seller” and evolves into a “stager” of extraordinary moments. Customers, in turn, cease to be mere “shoppers” and are transformed into “guests” who seek immersive “sensations” rather than mere transactions. Brands that neglect to provide these immersive experiences risk succumbing to customer apathy, as modern consumers increasingly demand not just products or services but memorable encounters that resonate deeply with their desires and emotions.

Today, the retail literature emphasizes store experiences, retail experiences, and experiential retailing. The concept of the “experience economy” highlights how brands use their spaces, props, and goods to engage customers in memorable events. Brands that fail to provide such experiences risk customer apathy and disengagement.

From Multi-Channel to Omni-Channel 

In the rapidly evolving landscape of consumer behaviour, it’s evident that customers have become increasingly intricate to comprehend, occasionally exhibiting unpredictability in their preferences and choices. However, brands that channel their efforts toward understanding and meeting these evolving customer needs are well-positioned to gain a significant competitive advantage. They achieve this by offering a “seamless experience” that seamlessly integrates various forms of technology and channels that are deemed relevant to their target audience.

While adopting a multi-channel retailing approach may not be a straightforward task, it presents brands with a multitude of advantages. Firstly, it fosters an enhanced customer perception, elevating the brand’s image as one that is responsive to diverse customer preferences. Secondly, it establishes a network of “engagement points” that facilitate customers’ buying journeys, making it more convenient and efficient for them to make a purchase. Thirdly, it provides brands with extensive opportunities to gather valuable customer data, which can be harnessed efficiently to refine products, services, and marketing strategies.

Furthermore, when retailers embrace multi-channel retailing, they expand the horizons of customer accessibility. Whether customers choose to engage in-store, from the comfort of their living rooms, or via their mobile devices, they enjoy a wealth of options for accessing information and making purchases. However, it’s crucial to note that this proliferation of channels only truly benefits customers when they encounter a consistent message—a message that resonates with the brand’s identity and values—across all the various platforms they engage with. This consistency, while not necessarily identical, ensures that customers experience a cohesive brand image and a unified shopping journey.

Brands have come to recognize that the evolution of multi-channel retailing should ultimately transform into an integrated-channel retailing approach. In this integrated framework, customers encounter a “consistent experience” characterized by a uniform look and feel across all channels. This consistency extends to the product offerings, the presentation of these offerings, and the overall ease of shopping, creating a harmonious and memorable shopping experience for customers throughout their interaction with the brand across diverse channels.

Alternative Retail Formats for Retail Excitement 

In the dynamic landscape of retail, where the value of delivering exceptional experiences to customers has been duly recognized, brands now possess the capability to infuse excitement across their entire spectrum, spanning levels and channels. However, this realization brings forth the crucial understanding that retail formats must not merely serve as conduits for transactions but as catalysts for generating retail excitement.

As we find ourselves in an era marked by ephemeral retailing, new and innovative retail formats are emerging to address the evolving demands of both the retail environment and customers who crave novelty, exhilaration, and immersive experiences. The genesis of this phenomenon can be traced back to 2008 when the spotlight shifted towards alternative forms of retailing, largely in response to the economic recession.

One such compelling manifestation of this shift is the resurgence of pop-up stores, a concept that has roots in seasonal holiday-themed retailing. However, contemporary retailers have recognized the potential of this format as a strategic tool for entering new neighbourhoods or markets, conducting market tests, raising brand awareness, and forging direct connections with their target consumer base. Concurrently, landlords have displayed greater flexibility in their lease agreements, embracing the notion of short-term leasing arrangements. This newfound openness has transformed pop-up stores from transient ventures into long-term opportunities for both brands and property owners.

Nonetheless, it’s imperative to acknowledge that the transient nature of pop-up stores, along with various other factors such as timing, pricing strategies, and strategic locations, serves as a wellspring of curiosity and intrigue. The timeless adage “here today, gone tomorrow” perfectly encapsulates the essence of pop-up stores, creating an innate sense of urgency within consumers to visit, explore, and establish closer connections with the brand. As a result, customers find themselves more deeply engaged, aware, and interactive with brands, fostering a symbiotic relationship that benefits both parties in the realm of modern retail.

A new retailing era? 

In the relentless pursuit of consumer engagement, brands must continually explore innovative ways to establish connections with their customer base, identifying the optimal channels and presentation methods for disseminating information. This pursuit, undoubtedly, comes at a cost, yet it is a necessary investment in the evolving realm of contemporary retail.

Pop-up stores, as alternative retail formats, provide retailers with a versatile toolkit to elevate, support, or bolster their brand image. However, it’s vital to recognize that the transformative potential of pop-up stores hinges on their seamless alignment with the brand’s overall channel representation. In this context, brand strategists must embark on a strategic reassessment to ensure that they are not harbouring the “illusion” that sporadic pop-up store appearances, whether once or repeatedly, possess the magical ability to single-handedly revive a brand from the brink of obscurity to unprecedented success. Such a perspective would be a grievous misjudgment, one that brand managers should vigilantly avoid.

To be unequivocal, pop-up retailing may not always be the panacea for every brand’s challenges. While it may flourish for some, it should not be forced upon others where it does not organically align with the brand’s ethos or resonate with the local audience. Furthermore, the success stories of pop-up stores in one geographical region or among a specific target audience should not be treated as a universal rule. Extensive research reveals that successful international expansion by retailers often involves adapting certain elements of their format and value chain while preserving others. Therefore, if brand managers intend to introduce retail formats such as pop-up stores their respective market, they must meticulously reevaluate their relevance and applicability within the local context.

Seasoned proprietors of thriving brands comprehend that their offerings transcend mere commodities. They are adept at orchestrating experiences that confer tangible value upon their customers, thereby furnishing compelling reasons for customers to willingly engage and, ideally, invest in the ownership of these experiences rather than merely the product or service being offered.

Is it alternative retailing? Perhaps. The evolution of retail will invariably continue to yield diverse and alternative forms of retail experiences, much like the present emergence of pop-up stores. Brands and retailers alike must remain adaptable, weaving any new retail format seamlessly into their overarching brand strategy. In doing so, they can forge a cohesive, harmonious experience across all channels, ultimately delivering enhanced value and satisfaction to their customers.

What can brand and retail managers learn? 

  • Embracing Change and Adaptation: Successful retail brands are those that can adapt to evolving consumer preferences and market dynamics. Managers should encourage a culture of innovation and change within their organizations to stay competitive in the “liquid society” of retail.
  • Focus on Customer Experience: Retailers should prioritize creating memorable customer experiences. This goes beyond providing products or services; it involves engaging customers on a personal level and making each interaction a sensation. Brands that fail to deliver these experiences risk losing customer loyalty.
  • Transition to Omni-Channel Retailing: Meeting customer needs in an era of complexity requires embracing omni-channel retailing. While it may be challenging to manage, it offers advantages such as improved customer perception, engagement points, data collection, and accessibility across multiple channels.
  • Consistency Across Channels: For omni-channel retailing to be successful, brands must maintain consistency in their messaging, look, and feel across all platforms. This ensures that customers have a seamless experience, regardless of the channel they choose.
  • Exploring Alternative Retail Formats: Pop-up stores and other alternative formats can be powerful tools for reaching new markets, testing products, and creating brand awareness. However, brand managers must assess their relevance and applicability in different geographical locations and target audiences.
  • Value Beyond Products: Successful brands recognize that they offer more than just products; they stage experiences that create value for customers. Managers should focus on delivering meaningful experiences that resonate with customers and drive engagement.
  • Retail Format Integration: Brands and retailers should integrate various retail formats within their overall strategy to create a seamless experience. This involves aligning the customer journey, branding, and messaging across all channels and touchpoints.

The retail landscape is continually evolving, with alternative retail formats like pop-up stores making their mark. Brands and retailers should adapt to changing customer expectations by providing seamless experiences across channels and focusing on creating value beyond products. By embracing change and innovation, businesses can thrive in the ever-transforming world of retail.