Pop-up shops are nothing new. In 2004, consumer trends firm Trendwatching.com noticed an increase in short-term storefronts and termed them "temporary performances" that helped big and small retailers alike boost sales and create buzz around their brand.
The trend soon caught on in Portland, and persists today. For many retailers, a pop-up bridges the gap between a strictly e-commerce operation and a permanent physical storefront.
And while pop-ups are present throughout the year, the holidays are a particularly popular time to open a temporary storefront. Portland is home to several pop-ups this season, many with an emphasis on gift items.
Pop-ups in Portland
The Portland Business Alliance has operated a holiday pop-up program since 2009, and this year helped three retailers open temporary storefronts in Old Town.
Lisa Frisch, retail program director for the Portland Business Alliance, said the alliance started the pop-up program in the midst of the Great Recession to entice businesses downtown and fill vacant storefronts, but also to help emerging retailers find a foothold.
The pop-ups were a hit, and they've become a mainstay in the alliance's holiday plan ever since. In fact, when the alliance took a year off from the program last year due to a lack of empty storefronts, several residents said they missed the temporary shops, Frisch said.
"We were so successful we put ourselves out of business," she said.
The storefront vacancy rate downtown was 5 percent last year, Frisch said, down significantly from 12 percent in 2009.
The big draw of pop-ups for shoppers, Frisch said, is the underdog story: They want to see a small business win, especially if that business is local and sells unique items made in Portland.
The retail 'test kitchen'
Patty Edwards, a consumer expert and managing director of investments with U.S. Bank Wealth Management in Seattle, said pop-ups are becoming a holiday mainstay because they're an inexpensive way for retailers to experiment.
Pop-up shops are more prevalent now than they were two years ago, she said.
Pop-ups are the new business incubator model, and provide a way for businesses to "fail fast," she said.
"If you're going to take a risk, do it in a contained environment," she said. "It allows these retailers to try different things without committing longer-term."
This is exactly what the pop-up accomplishes for Aaron Draplin, graphic designer and founder of Draplin Design Co., one of the Portland Business Alliance's three pop-ups this season.
"That's a whole new ball of wax for me," he said of the Field Notes store. "This (the pop-up) is sort of experimenting to see what that feels like."
Those at other pop-ups feel similarly. The Joinery, a hardwood furniture outfit based in Southeast Portland's Woodstock neighborhood, opened a pop-up showroom downtown earlier this year. They're treating the temporary location as a "test kitchen," said salesman David Ratzlaff.
This ability to experiment is crucial in a post-recession economy, said Edwards, the consumer expert. Like the Great Depression, the recent recession reset consumer spending habits. Shoppers have lost their "affluenza" – or runaway consumerism – and now they're more cautious with their spending, she said.
And as national retailers shutter stores in malls throughout the U.S., malls are increasingly looking toward pop-ups as inexpensive ways to fill that space, Edwards said.
During the holidays, the temporary storefronts can fulfill that consumer need for holiday items without disrupting other sales.
Plus, she said, "Consumers like them because they're convenient, and they're a novelty."