Pop-ups are so ubiquitous that calling them a trend suggests they might drift away. They won't.
Until now, I've always felt that once you've been to one pop-up, you've been to them all, in terms of the shopping experience. Shopify's recent foray into the pop-up world proved me wrong. Here are five reasons why, which other entrepreneurs might want to take to heart:
The focus was teaching, not selling
The atmosphere at Shopify's four-day Retail Tour, held in Toronto's historic Burroughes Building, was surprisingly relaxed. Unlike most pop-ups I've attended – tacos, vintage clothes, home accessories - there wasn't an expectation to buy. Of course, the goal of the Ottawa startup (which recently hit the $1-billion mark) is to expose its brand to different parts of Canada and to sell more plans and point-of-sale (POS) systems, which came out in August, 2013. The Retail Tour, however, is geared explicitly to customers who have already shelled out for their subscriptions and launched their online stores. By offering workshops - including 'setting up your online store' and 'DIY product photography workshop' (which apparently was so popular people were put on a waiting list) - along with one-on-one guru sessions (a concept borrowed from Apple's Genius Bar), the company broke the common 'pop up/buy stuff' model.
Face time and feedback from customers
Arati Sharma, Shopify's community development manager, says there's a widespread assumption that most of the company's customers are tech entrepreneurs. In reality, most of them are mom-and-pop shops trying to present their bricks-and-mortar stores to the online world. The aim of the Retail Tour was to provide a less corporate and more welcoming environment for customers.
They partnered strategically
By teaming up with well-liked and well-known brands such as Beau's All Natural Brewery Co. (which supplied drinks in the evening), Google Canada (the candy bar) and Canon Canada (photography workshops and discounts on entry-level cameras and tripods), Shopify embodied Aristotle's famous quote: "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Ms. Sharma, who plans all of the company's events, says she was happy with the turnout over the past four days, but she admits to being nervous on the first day. "I get that anxiety." But the demand was high enough to turn a one-day event into a four-day series, and many of the workshops (three a day) were oversubscribed. She says there were 120 one-on-one appointments. The best part of hosting the series, however, was the perspective it gave her: seemingly mundane, but essential tasks such as laying out the store, cleaning up after the event and throwing out the garbage gave her a new appreciation for the tasks of a small-business owner. "It's been really cool to put myself and all of our team in the world of someone running a retail operation," she says.
They're dropping the 'e' from 'e-commerce'
Part of Shopify's success has been capitalizing on the fact that online and offline are inextricable. In fact, Shopify launched its POS system in August "because a lot of the customers wanted to integrate their online and offline store," Ms. Sharma says. "I say to people, 'just drop the e – it's not e-commerce, it's commerce' because everyone's worlds are merging. They're doing pop-up shops and they have an online store. Or people who have had businesses for years and years and years are now trying to figure out how they can get online."
It's a model that can (and will) replicate
Following the Retail Tour, Ms. Sharma says the company is going to take a breather and re-group, but more of these kinds of tours are on its agenda. "We'll see where we'll go next – we would love to do the U.S.," she says. The vast majority of Shopify's user base continues to be American.
Photos by Andrew Williamson