On the Up and Up

Published on 26 April 2017

How pop-up stores influence the local design scene.


Illustration: iStock

Keepers. BooksActually. In-N-Out. What do these three brands have in common? They have all had pop-up stores in Singapore that was immensely popular with the local crowd.

Once a novelty concept, pop-up stores have become a viable and popular platform for all types of brands to reach out to new segments. Whether these brands are homegrown or hail from overseas, online or bricks-and-mortar shops, there’s no denying the appeal of pop-up stores.


Also known as flash retailing, pop-up stores are short-term stores or temporary events. It all started in Los Angeles in 1997 with the Ritual Fashion and Music Expo. The one-day affair was branded “the ultimate hipster mall” by entrepreneur Patrick Courrielche, who is often credited as the pioneer of pop-up stores.

Pop-up stores have been gaining popularity in Singapore over the last six years, with labels from industries as varied as furniture, fashion, and publishing launching their own pop-up stores.

In-N-Out, an American fast-food chain, was one of the earliest pop-up stores to make its presence felt. It opened a pop-up here twice, once in July 2012, and again in November 2014, selling its signature burgers.

These days, pop-up stores are no longer just one-day affairs. They can now last for a few months, like how local bookstore BooksActually held a six-month pop-up at Millenia Walk from 2014 to 2015.

Keepers: Singapore Designer Collective is perhaps one of the most high-profile pop-up spaces in recent memory. The event, organised by Keepers, a Singapore designer collective, showcased creative wares by independent artists and lasted 16 months in Orchard Road. It was originally supposed to have a five-month run when it opened in 2014, but its success led to it being part of the downtown shopping landscape until February last year.


WARES GALORE Naiise, a retailer of designer lifestyle products, have operated pop-up stores at Dunlop Street (left) and George Street.

“Pop-up stores are a platform for brands to create unique retail experiences for their consumers that cannot always be done in a traditional retail setting,” says Chong Li Bing, head of marketing at Naiise, a retailer of designer lifestyle products. “[They] need to have a compelling retail concept. They must offer a differentiated and memorable experience in order to be effective.”

Naiise operated two to three pop-up stores a year when they started out in 2013, before transitioning to bricks-and-mortar operations in early 2015.

“I like to think of pop-up stores as pop-up art exhibitions,” says Samantha Soh, chief executive officer and co-founder of homegrown women’s fashion label, Ellysage. “They’re fun and full of character.”


STEP RIGHT UP! The Design Supermarket pop-up store at Orchard Central, organised by Naiise, featured a mix of items ranging from home décor to fashion and kitchenware. (Photo: Naiise)

Compared to long rental leases, a pop-up store does not require as heavy a financial commitment. This motivates online brands to use pop-up stores as another avenue to showcase their wares.

“This trend [of online labels turning to pop-up stores] started sometime in 2015 when malls started facing increased vacancies. Pop-ups became a way to solve that temporary vacancy,” says Soh.

“Pop-up stores have definitely increased because of the weak retail rental market,” agrees Chong. This has proven to be especially important for our local designers and artists, who may lack the financial muscle to reach out to larger audiences by using online platforms to market their merchandise.

But Casey Chen, a local artist who sells his lifestyle products under his name, hesitates from investing in a pop-up store in Singapore. “You can’t recover your costs,” says the 46-year-old. “I had my own store in Liang Court in 2009. It was located in Chai [a fashion store] and I sold lifestyle products like cushions and furniture. Beside me was a European brand that people would pay thousands of dollars for.

“But shoppers wouldn’t pay $700 for an ottoman from my shop. They would think, ‘Ah, that is local’ and not buy it,” says Chen, who has been in the design industry for 22 years. “People will go for the brands they know. If not, then they won’t even bother.”


Chen feels that pop-up stores can serve a greater purpose beyond that of retail by featuring more works by local designers, which may sometimes be perceived to be of lower quality compared to other more established international brands.

“Straightway, you’ll put a price on Hello Kitty, you’ll spend a few hundred dollars on their products. But when people see a $25 handbag from Ang Ku Kueh Girl, they’ll wonder if they are spending too much because it’s a local brand.” Ang Ku Kueh Girl is a Singapore label that features stationery, books and other travel products based on the character of the same name.

“That’s why many of our designers don’t make it locally — people from overseas know us better than those in our own country. It would be great if pop-up stores featured more local designers,” shares Chen. “Then shoppers will start thinking, ‘If I am going to buy a designer bag, why don’t I buy a local designer bag instead?’ By starting with our local designers, we can also bring back the kampong spirit with pop-up stores.”

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