For a virtual company formed as an alternative to traditional stores, there's a remarkable solidity to the signs, banners and racks of clothes at Indochino's sales event in an ornate century-old Georgian building in Washington, D.C.
The established-looking shop with its attentive staff is part of a game-changing strategy for the founders of the Victoria-based online retailer.
Shopping for business clothes in men's stores had always struck Kyle Vucko, Indochino.com's co-founder and chief executive officer, as a stodgy experience. The styles were seldom what a young man had in mind and having something made to order was out of the budget for someone who was just launching a career, he found.
Classmate Heikal Gani at the University of Victoria was thinking the same way after shopping in men's stores for his first suit to make a presentation at a conference.
It was the lightbulb moment for the founding of Indochino. Mr. Gani, the company's chief creative officer, grew up in Singapore and knew that tailors in Asia could custom-make handcrafted suits for a fraction of the cost of tailoring in Canada. The partners established a production and distibution network in Shanghai and began taking orders online in 2007.
The company's virtual sales were growing but about a year ago the partners decided to boost their visibility by setting up shops – but not like the permanent men's stores most people know.
Instead they're crossing Canada and the United States running temporary "pop-up" stores in high-traffic locations. "We prefer to call them 'retail events,'" Mr. Vucko says.
The displays they created include large high-tech logos and banners and racks of sample suits that require trucks to move from site to site. In recent months they've set up at a high-traffic corner in Vancouver's financial district and in the Calgary Tower. In New York they set up in the great hall of Grand Central Station and they did another in Chicago's palatial Union Station.
And in March the venue for 10 days was a busy and historic building in Washington that's run by online daily deals site livingsocial.com.
Pop ups are a relatively new phenomenon in Canada but they're a fast growing trend in the United States and in Britain, says Maureen Atkinson, Toronto-based senior partner at retailing and marketing consultancy J.C. Williams Group.
The advantage of pop-up stores is that they generate buzz about a brand in a market where they didn't have a presence before. That's particularly important for companies that only exist online, she explains.
"The challenge with websites is getting people to them. So having something physical helps to get people to find you and use you," she notes. Setting up a temporary shop lets people experience the brand, which generates word of mouth.
Because it's such a relatively new phenomenon, there's no comprehensive research on how well they work, but Ms. Atkinson says there's anecdotal evidence that they create lasting awareness.
The master of the pop-up store is Target Corp., which did one in Toronto last year, she says. Only open for a day, it had a lineup hours before it opened and it created a lasting awareness of the U.S.-based company's move into Canada this year.
In addition to creating anticipation, retailers can use the temporary shops to test demand for a physical store. "Location is the key, not only for visibility but to get enough sales volume to make it pay its way," she says.
And by setting up in interesting locations, the pop up can be self-publicizing. For instance, when Target was planning a store in Manhattan, it set up a weekend pop up on a barge in the harbour that attracted phenomenal lineups because of the unusual location, Ms. Atkinson says.
"There's lots of creativity in this and it's good to see, because the customers can get pretty bored with the same old stores."
Even a company that's synonymous with online sales is experimenting with the advantage of using pop-up stores to drive its brand.
Before Christmas, eBay Canada set up a pop-up store in Toronto's high-end Yorkville neighbourhood. Each item had a QR [quick response] code that shoppers could scan to create an online wish list and staff were on hand to explain how to shop on eBay.
"It was a way to bring our virtual service to life in a physical form," says Andrea Stairs, country manager for eBay Canada in Toronto. It was designed to demonstrate the range of goods shoppers can buy new on the site, which has traditionally been thought of as a place to buy used items, she adds.
The storefront was designed to look like a European market stall and staff gave out hot chocolate and popcorn, "which was very popular." There was also an opening night party that brought a lot of media attention.
EBay considered the three-day event a major success, and is considering doing it again, Ms. Stairs says. Some of the featured toys had a surge in sales and the concept was duplicated as a micro site on the eBay home page that the company credits for stronger sales during the holiday season.
Indochino is also getting an online boost from its physical presence, Mr. Vucko says.
"We've been pleasantly surprised with the levels of attendance and increasing popularity of the events. We've had to lengthen the duration of events in each new city to accommodate the number of customers without decreasing the amount of individual attention or appointment time," he says.
"Every event we go to, people tell us they were referred from attendees of other events," he adds. And the feedback the fitters get from customers are helping them enhance the online fitting process and is leading to an expansion of the range of clothes they offer, including custom shirts, slacks and accessories.
"There's a large demographic of guys who want a tangible experience; they want to see and feel," Mr. Vucko says. "It's all an evolution; we want to build an experience for guys across all the marketing channels. With these events we can be physically present without having to own real estate."
Clothes make the job candidate
Wearing a well-tailored suit is still considered a plus in a job interview for young men, according to a new survey. A third of Canadian chief information officers said they consider a proper business suit the most appropriate attire for someone interviewing for an IT position, according to a survey by Robert Half Technology. Another 29 per cent of the 270s CIOs surveyed said that a serious candidate should at least show up for the interview in a well-tailored jacket, with the rest saying that at least the interviewee should consider a collared shirt and khakis.