By 6:45 Thursday morning, throngs of eager shoppers had gathered outside of a storefront on the corner of King Street West and Blue Jays Way. It didn’t matter that the shop wouldn’t open until noon. This one-time pop-up shop for U.S. discount chain, Target, had been deemed a can’t-miss retail extravaganza.
For Target, the opportunity to transform an otherwise run-of-the-mill shopping experience into an “event” was a calculated publicity stunt, a way to build hype in advance of the chain’s launch into the Canadian market in spring of 2013. The afternoon-only storefront was fleeting. The designer it showcased was cutting-edge. And the splash it generated paid off with extensive media coverage. It’s little wonder that Target, having operated over 20 pop-ups in the past decade, considers itself a “pop-up pioneer.”
But pop-ups are increasingly appealing to small-business owners in Toronto, as well. Their reasons for turning to the pop-up approach often mirror those of the big corporate players: consumer curiosity draws customers in, and in-person product interaction makes for a more meaningful connection between buyer and brand. One high-visibility event is all it takes to spark conversation.
“It was a good step for our brand to grow, in exposure and in sales,” says designer Elly Green, whose Toronto-based loungewear company, Clothing Brand Experiment, held a two-month-long pop-up near Queen Street West and Ossington from October through December of last year.
Unlike small retailers of yore, Elly Green’s five-year-old business has never used a permanent brick-and-mortar shop to showcase its wares. Instead, CBE has built its brand the way many independent businesses of the Internet age have, through an online storefront and word-of-mouth promotion. Still, when offered the chance to operate a short-term storefront on a trendy pedestrian thoroughfare, Ms. Green knew it was an opportunity not to be missed.
“The visibility [of the pop-up]was far more valuable than anything else,” she recalls.
For larger retailers, the point is usually to draw advance attention to the eventual opening of a permanent storefront; pioneer or not, Target is hardly the first major retailer to warm up its Canadian market this way. The Hudson’s Bay Company held a weekend-long Topshop pop-up last June to prep crowds for its September partnership with the U.K.-based clothier. Shortly after, a temporary Xbox storefront opened a few blocks west to promote the gaming platform’s Canadian launch of a its new Kinect system. Both drew formidable crowds.
But for smaller, local business players, short-term storefronts aren’t necessarily seen as gateways to the end-goal of a permanent retail location.
“It’s kind of guerilla in nature,” says Owen Walker, caterer by day and pop-up restaurateur by night, of his one-man restaurant operation CONCESSION, which held its first event out of College Street bar Ted’s Collision earlier this month. Mr. Walker views the endeavour as a creative outlet, and in a high-rent city like Toronto, borrowing an existing space on an occasional basis makes a side-project like this one feasible.
“There’s not a lot of overhead that goes into it, which is great,” says Mr. Walker. “I’m only making food myself, and I’m serving it and prepping it at the same time. I haven’t hired anybody to serve anything, or to help me in any way. So I need it to stay guerilla, in a sense, so I can hold onto the concept that I have right now and continue doing everything for myself.”
Beyond the appeal of autonomy, pop-ups are a point of local interest. “They’re definitely a growing trend, and market,” observes fourth-year OCADU student and designer Elija Montgomery, whose Call Me Cornelius bowtie line was featured in a student-run pop-up at the Gladstone Hotel last weekend. “And I think people in Toronto really like going to them, so that’s always a bonus.”
Ms. Green of CBE appreciates the way pop-up culture in Toronto has evolved, particularly with regard to independent retailers. While many other cities relegate pop-ups to locations off the beaten bath, Ms. Green notes that Toronto’s are often in the most high traffic shopping areas, most notably the West Queen West strip.
“I’m really glad that there are some empty shops that are taking on short-term leases with Toronto designers,” she says. “It’s exciting. I want to buy from those Toronto designers as much as I want to sell to Toronto as a designer.”
Special to The Globe and Mail