A New Kind of Pop-Up Store Arrives on Four Wheels

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A new type of store is popping up at a California mall on June 10. It looks a lot like a regular shop, full of handbags, small leather goods, and jewelry. Oh, except it’ll be outside, and the floors, counters, and racks all fit on a flatbed truck, to be transported and remade anywhere—some assembly required.

Cuyana, a San Francisco-based premium fashion label, is taking its traveling showroom on a summer road trip. The portable pop-up presents retailers and malls with a new way to sell goods, gather data, and try out locations without committing to a larger lease or paying repeatedly for major renovations. Just load the whole thing onto a truck and plop it down somewhere. “Retail’s not going away,” says Shilpa Shah, co-founder of Cuyana. “It just needs to be reinvented.”

PopUp Republic, which helps brands create and market temporary locations, estimates the pop-up retail industry has grown to $10 billion in U.S. sales across numerous categories from fashion to tech. Retailers such as Amazon.com Inc. and Nike Inc. have tried out temporary locations, and Macy’s Inc. a few years ago began opening pop-up marketplaces in its own department stores. Brands around the world are getting more creative: Gucci rented a Milan apartment to show off its home decor, Pantone served pastries and coffee from a cafe in Monaco, and Lego opened an art gallery in London.

A New Kind of Pop-Up Store Arrives on Four Wheels

But pop-ups are expensive and involve outfitting an entire storefront for just a few months, weeks, or days. Shah says those economics don’t always work. With a mobile shop, a company can test many locations with just one initial capital expenditure of about the cost of a single traditional store. The Cuyana shop’s first appearance will be at the Platform in Culver City, a boutique shopping center just west of downtown Los Angeles with trendy shops like Reformation, Monocle, and Broome Street General Store. From there, it will travel to four other malls in the area for monthlong stints that run through November. The company declined to share how much it spent on the store.

Other retailers have attempted to create a movable feast. Matchesfashion.com turned a yacht into a floating boutique it sailed to hotels on the Italian coast. Brands such as Veuve Clicquot, Jenni Kayne, and Miansai have used Airstream trailers as makeshift shops, doing temporary business on a roadside or at a beach. The limitation is that these moving stores can’t be fully customized for the brand.

Cuyana’s store was created in conjunction with Toyota Motor Corp., as part of the automaker’s Agile Space program, which seeks to find ways to reprovision underused space. In this case, the areas in question are shopping malls, which have struggled to find uses for idle square footage in an era of fewer visitors and higher vacancy rates. The pitch for mall operators is that they can take an area they’re not trying to rent long term—a few parking spaces, a courtyard, or an empty atrium—and make some money off it.

Mall owners need all the help they can get. The value of U.S. shopping centers has fallen an average 60% after appraisals in 2020, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Retailers once known as cornerstones of the American mall are looking at a more free-standing future, with Bath & Body Works, Gap, Old Navy, and other stores shrinking their presence. Regional malls saw vacancy rates rise to a record 11.4% in the first quarter of 2021, according to Moody’s Analytics.

While Cuyana’s portable pop-up is only one shop, Shah says if it’s successful at gathering data to make better store location decisions, the company will develop more mobile stores as test balloons across major markets in the U.S., hopscotching from one metropolitan mall to the next in cities like Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco. Cuyana will track foot-traffic patterns, spending habits, and how other tenants nearby might influence its business to help it figure out whether long-term leases would make sense.

The Cuyana pop-up takes up eight parking spaces and requires three days to install or dismantle. Toyota researchers say they can get that down to one day. “We believe that the platform for the use and provisioning of underused space will play a very critical role in solving society’s pressing problems,” says Baik Hoh, principal researcher at Toyota’s R&D lab in Mountain View, Calif. “And retailers had a problem.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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