It’s summer and pop-up shops have been sprouting up all over Toronto in parking lots, vacant storefronts, and the list goes on. What’s the last pop-up shop you encountered? Was it charming, exclusive, makeshift, perhaps all of those things?

There has been plenty of buzz over pop-up shops recently, most notably for its ability to generate enthusiasm for brands and merchandise. Their makeshift, crafty aesthetic creates an allure of urgency around their existence – it might not be there tomorrow.

Extending beyond brand enthusiasm and merchandising, pop-up shops have been especially interesting to me for three reasons:

They reframe our view of urban spaces

Pop-up shops can be as resourceful as the food stalls and street vendors found in Asia, elsewhere, and more recently, here in Toronto at the Live Local Marketplace. Such shops make use of under-utilized spaces, while reframing how we perceive the possibilities of a space. With my avid interest in urban spaces and how people engage with them, I always enjoy how a pop-up bar cafe in a parking lot or alleyway can change the tone of a street or corner. The element of surprise is lovely and naturally attracts attention and groups of people.

Nescafe Dolce Gusto pop-up café in Toronto, 2012. Photo Credit: Jen Chow

They redefine our ideas around storefronts

Pop-up shops have started to shift our thinking of what a storefront might entail. While there are multi-faceted stores and cafes that operate as partial gallery spaces (e.g. Magic Pony), the pop-up shops I have seen tend to carry a small selection of items, curated in an almost gallery-like manner, sparsely and carefully assembled.

They offer a low-risk opportunity to prototype and learn

While pop-up shops have been used by big brands, small entrepreneurial start-ups have been benefiting from the model as well. A couple such shops in the Nurun Toronto neighbourhood are Sauvage and Banh Mi Boys Sandwich Shop. Sauvage, a fashion retailer selling a curated collection of shoes and accessories, has been operating out of a temporary space while establishing itself, with intentions to eventually find a permanent storefront. Banh Mi Boys opened their shop for several weeks with a roaring start, and then closed for renovations before re-opening in full force.

Compared to entering a lease and investing in full-fledged retail displays, pop-up shops by their nature tend to be makeshift, resourcefully using relatively low-cost materials. Start-ups can design and prototype retail experiences, test them, refine, and then scale when the time is right.

What can big brands learn from entrepreneurs? They can use pop-up shops to reap the benefits of the design process of prototyping, learning, and refining new retail experiences before making full investments to scale them.

My urban-geek thought is that with all the condo developments underway in Toronto, condo presentation centres must be ripe for reincarnations as pop-up shops, no?

Stay tuned for more thinking about emerging trends and what they might mean for retailers. We’ve got a series coming soon.