Food retailers became even more vital at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic as consumers flocked to groceries for their essential products amid lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. They also served as a place for customers to seek out both nostalgic and brand-new foods as comfort and entertainment during uncertain times. The industry responded to these shifts, and when customers resumed more regular shopping trips again, the pop-up model of food retail began to thrive.
“The pendulum swings and as online shopping became ubiquitous, offline became novel,” said Emily Schildt, founder of Pop Up Grocer. “Pop-ups allow for an in-person experience that is exciting by nature — new, momentous, highly shareable.”
Pop Up Grocer sets up temporary locations for 30 days each — the latest iteration was most recently in Denver through Oct. 30 — that feature curated products from up to 150 emerging brands that are primarily vegan and gluten-free foods. The business will continue to operate these rotating retail spaces, but a permanent location, which Schildt describes as “one neverending pop-up,” is opening this winter in New York City.
“The pandemic, for us anyway, was somewhat of a catalyst for further growth,” added Schildt. “People have been even more contained inside, attached to their screens and stuck in the monotony of reorders on Amazon. They’re seeking, more than ever, something that is more stimulating, social, and altogether nourishing (pun intended).”
Zero-sugar beverage company Swoon partnered with Pop Up Grocer to be a featured brand in their stores.
“During [the pandemic] and much introspection, grocery stores never closed so really taking time to cook at home and explore new foods and drinks — some of the only items people were purchasing — added to the focus on the curated store for discovery,” said Cristina Blankfein, co-founder of Swoon.
Why the pop-up format?
Smaller-scale brands can often benefit from the pop-up model of retail because these locations foster new product discovery that isn’t as common in traditional food retail because of the need for more limited and long-term offerings of pantry staples.
“Traditional retailers review your product and it hits shelves many months later, whereas a pop-up grocer has a lot shorter lead time from creation to availability on shelf,” said Chelsea Johns, marketing director at Swoon.
“Because of the ephemeral nature of a pop-up, there is a sense of urgency to visit,” added Schildt. “This drives a surge of traffic that traditional retail typically doesn’t see … They also allow for fresh curation and thematic introduction of products, where even the best and most creative merchandising can feel stale in a consistent location.”
Blankfein also shared that from a practical perspective, pop-up spaces have become popular because the pandemic has resulted in many available storefronts. This has allowed direct-to-consumer brands access to a brick-and-mortar shopping audience without the challenges of long retailer reviews or expanded distribution.
The other advantages for both the retailer and brands are that these stores can be personalized and create an aesthetic space that encourages customers to share on social media. This is another way that Pop Up and its brands can be shown to new consumers. One of the retailer’s considerations when choosing products to showcase is attractive packaging.
“Pop-up grocers are a more curated and beautifully merchandised experience, an “Instagram-worthy” grocery shopping experience which is valuable given the shareable, social nature of the digital world,” added Johns.
Giving emerging brands a boost
Pop Up Grocer focuses its inventory on new offerings from brands created in the last five years, according to Schildt. It is also important for Pop Up to feature companies founded and lead by under-represented groups such as women, people of color and queer people as well as foods made with responsible ingredient sourcing, she added.
“We say that success in our space is just being there, as Pop Up Grocer is, first and foremost, a platform for exposure,” said Schildt. “And those that see the highest sales are typically those that are difficult to find elsewhere, but people are familiar with, from having seen on TikTok, for example.”
Pop Up Grocer goes above and beyond just displaying products; the company also donates 5% of the sales at each pop-up location to a different brand and its founder. Swoon co-founder Blankfein also praised Pop Up for its support of startups via sharing sell-through data, adding that Schildt has also given Swoon valuable advice.
“We partnered with Pop Up Grocer for discovery,” said Blankfein. “The curated experience allows for more customer attention, which in turn means more time for education.”
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