Too many column inches have been given over to the ravage COVID has had on retail: the most sudden, drastic and damaging moment of disruption we’ve seen is without doubt leaving a deep and savage mark. But in amongst it all, there have been moments of inspiration, of genius pivots that deserve their fair share of the limelight, and one of these unsung high-street heroes is arguably the humble pop-up.

Once considered an add-on, luxury or just plain old gimmick, pop-ups were primarily viewed as a way to flog discounted or end-of-season products. Now, they’re offering a lifeline to retailers, many of which are struggling to connect with customers while the traditional brand engagement playbook remains shut.


pop-up summer

Savvy retailers like Tesco and Costcutter were both early adopters, each opening supermarket pop-ups at NHS hospitals in an effort to support time-poor key workers. Fashion retailer Ted Baker wasn’t far behind with the launch of its online pop-up, ‘Ted’s Bazaar’, and in the process, reinventing the essence of the pop-up by digitising it. Grocers too have found new business homes in pubs and restaurants, and vice versa, pubs and restaurants have found friends in grocers.

The agility shown by these retailers is proof positive that retail can adapt rapidly to shifts in consumer shopping behaviour – this is, at the very least, something to be cheerful about amidst the doom and gloom.

pop-up fashion

Most importantly, however, it’s not necessarily a choice between bricks or clicks. Recent consumer surveys indicate that though consumers are buying more online, they’re preferring to shop from retailers that blend the two – and for good reason. Ecommerce is great for such day-to-day essentials like pasta, flour and toilet roll – moments where the quality versus expense doesn’t matter all that much, or a general browse is all that’s needed. But for most purchases, and particularly big ticket products, people want to experience the product before they buy it. Or they seek the little ‘indulge-me’ impulse purchase – impulses (and the requisite gratification) that are harder to achieve with a swipe or click.

This is where pop-ups come into their own. Shopping remains an inherently sociable experience, and people are missing important macro-moments due to an absence of the physical experience – things like meeting up for a social shopping trip on bank holiday weekend or perusing the shelves to buy a present for a loved one. Pop-ups are an opportunity for engaging experience, with fun, thrills and surprises to bring people in to share and sometimes, live, the brand experience.

The challenge as retail opens up in COVID-safe compliance is that the micro-moments of physical shopping – testing cosmetics, trying on clothes etc – will inevitably become considered rather than instinctive actions. Pop-ups – physical or digital – can go some way to providing a touchless retail experience when anxiety levels are high yet by their nature, they’re fleeting.

Pop Up NHS

People still want familiar shopping experiences so it’s down to retailers to weave in retail tech seamlessly into stores. There’s ample tech out there to serve this purpose that can harness motion, gesture and voice. There’s even a place to resurrect the QR code – just look at how convenient, safe and essential that seems compared to just before Christmas. Or what about the development of a virtual store?

Post-pandemic, retailers will be reassessing what their assets can do within the omnichannel experience they provide for their customers. With a bit of reimagination, pop-ups have shown their versatility to extend that experience far beyond what we traditionally associated them with – temporary physical presence to digital or tech-supported asset. The more shoppers become accustomed to seeing and experiencing them, the more they will appreciate pop-ups’ role as a core part of the retail experience.

Simon Hathaway, MD EMEA, Outform