Matthew Brown – Retail Futurist, Echochamber – celebrates the power of the Pop Up to inspire new designs and new experiences across the retail world. This column is part of a regular series that champions design inspiration in retail, published in association with The Design Solution.

The Pop Up is now a mainstream retail channel bursting with creativity. Travel retail should embrace the Pop Up in order to create fresh and exciting experiences…

It’s nearly a decade since the global financial crash set off a retail apocalypse, and the world is now a very different place, writes Matthew Brown. The traditional shopping mall model, with its anchor department store, is in crisis. New retail behemoths such as Amazon are not only dominating online but reinventing physical retail across books, technology and now food. Yet amongst the ruins of brands such as Blockbuster, Radio Shack and Sears, there has been resurgence in retail innovation, driven by our increasing demand for exceptional shopping experiences.

Travel retail has been a surprise winner. Who would have thought that airports and railway stations would become global destinations for shopping, food and leisure? Certainly the sector had some catching up to do in terms of improving the customer offer, however, the innovators in travel retail have looked at trends in the wider world and created a new benchmark of excellence that can compete globally in any sector.

The other big winner in retail is the Pop Up. Originating as a niche concept back in the early Noughties, it accelerated during the crash, as brands went bust and the leasing model changed. Then it went mainstream. Somewhere along the way, the Pop Up transformed itself into a ‘permanent’ retail channel. Now, when brands talk about Omnichannel, this means online, permanent and Pop Up.

IKEA are the perfect example of this new innovative Omnichannel approach, with original, powerful retail design at the centre of every project. Faced with the growth of online, and the fading popularity of big box shopping amongst Millennials, IKEA has developed smaller city centre stores, as well as an even smaller click and collect concept for the shopping mall. Interestingly, with a subtle tweak, this format could work perfectly in a travel environment.

Alongside this permanent portfolio is a continual global program of innovative Pop Up experiences; from the sleepover bedrooms in the Paris Metro, to the Breakfast in Bed Café in London and the IKEA Temporary in Milan, with its meatball café and kitchen of the future. My favourite store of last year was the IKEA Dining Club in London, featuring a café, events space, and, best of all, a DIY restaurant where you could learn to cook dinner for 20 of your friends. You even got your name on the door!

For mall and airport operators, Pop Up retail is an opportunity to build a point of difference, seasonality and experience into what can otherwise be a static and boring mix.

Even malls themselves have become Pop Up experiences – Bikini in Berlin is an iconic lifestyle mall with pop ups built into the design. And what about the UK-based concept Boxpark, the world’s first shipping container mall, now at a second location in Croydon? These blend up-and-coming street food operators and designers, with brands wanting to do something a bit different.

FMCGs such as Nestle and Unilever have also discovered the power of the Pop Up as a tool to raise brand awareness. They have developed fantastic, game changing retail concepts for their consumer brands. For them it’s a battle of survival, as the rise of the hard discounters in the grocery market erodes the dominance of household name brands. Factor in the slow death of traditional advertising and a high profile pop up experience that goes viral starts to look like an obvious investment.

Nestle have developed the Kit Kat Chocolatory, where customers queued around the block to customise their own Kit Kat, made fresh to order and with packaging that you can design yourself. Perfect for gifting or as a decadent treat.

Unilever meanwhile have been busy rolling out their fantastic Magnum Pleasure Store Pop Ups; offering a theatrical reconstruction of the iconic ice cream, perfect for that Instagram moment. This has been followed by other social media engaged retail experiences this summer, such as the Axe Pop Up Barbershop in Dublin, St Ives Mixing Bar in New York and a new Soft Republic ice cream concept for Walls in London.

What all the best pop ups share is a sense of bold invention, a playful ability to present their brand in a new light, free from the constraints of long term leases and capital costs. Ironically the result is sometimes better than the permanent.

Benefit in particular create wonderful pop up experiences every year; from the fantastic Curls, Cupcakes and Cocktails Parlour, with a secret nail cocktail bar that opened after dark, to their Good Ship Benefit on board a boat in London, complete with restaurant and beauty pods.

Hospitality is one key element towards making a Pop Up shine, and even the supermarkets are in on the game. Tesco’s pop up Finest Wine Bar in London, was a two week celebration of its best selection, set within a stylish monochrome space. Buzzing with activity, this was one of the best things they have ever done.

John Lewis too has transformed the rooftop of its Oxford Street store into a garden oasis, complete with personal gazebo huts and bars and restaurants.

Pop Ups have become a regular fixture of the retail calendar, yet they are also becoming permanent. Brands such as Nike and Adidas have both developed permanent pop up spaces, where the location is the same, but the content changes over time. These innovation hubs allow brands to experiment with new ideas, showcase new ranges, and host events. From a customer perspective, there is always a reason to come back.

It is this approach that makes the Pop Up a sustainable retail channel, and one that can be adopted anywhere. My favourite Pop Up of all time is Story in New York. Launched in 2011, this magazine style concept changes its ‘story’ every few weeks, re-launching with a totally new store design and product mix. Six years, and many stories later, Story is still one of the best stores in New York.

Brands that value innovation are evolving the very concept of the Pop Up every year. This is the sector that provides the most exciting new ideas; whether in new technology, interactive storytelling, personalization, hospitality, and even design. In a world where customers travel ever further and more often, so we crave new experiences that break the mould of the ordinary.

The pace of change is furious, terrifying, but also electric!

Matthew Brown runs Echochamber, a retail trend consultancy that travels the world seeking out innovation across all sectors, in order to understand the trends that are shaping the future. As a retail futurist, Matthew advises clients on global best practice and how to apply principles to futureproof their businesses. has been feeding industry professionals with inspiration since 1999, in the early days of the internet.

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The Design Solution: Virtual Reality – Bringing the design experience to life

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