The term pop-up, most often used to mean a small, temporary shop for selling or showing off products, first cropped up in the early 2000s. It’s since been applied far beyond traditional retail. There are pop-up pizzerias, Game of Thrones bars, concert-merch outlets (followed by pop-up concerts), Pop-Tarts bars, cat cafés, even—for pop-ups need no longer be material—pop-up email newsletters.
Where did pop-ups come from, and why are they so abundant now? Even as commercial rents soar, forcing many urban storefronts to close, large brands are noting brick-and-mortar’s advantages and the wide possibilities for consumer data–tracking in the real world.
But first, some necessary taxonomy: There are two types of pop-ups, one homegrown and one more corporate. The former involves, say, a lone entrepreneur who scopes out a bustling brunch spot and puts up tentpoles and tables to sell her line of handbags. It’s a form of business that is flexible, creative, and timeless. The second category is, by now, more visible: Google pops up donut shops to promote its new internet-connected speakers; Bulgari invites models to a popcorn-themed fashion pop-up in Paris.
It’s this more corporate sort of pop-up that has mushroomed in recent years. The goal is not so much immediate revenue as it is promotion and data collection, mapping the internet’s capacity for surveillance onto physical retail space. Pop-ups of this variety, as ad people assure clients, can help more-traditional retailers “tap into ‘massclusivity’”—giving even large numbers of customers the feeling that what they’re getting is a distinct, limited-time-only experience that can’t be replicated. As one 2010 consumer-psychology paper noted, pop-up retail tickles the parts of one’s brain that likes new things. The tighter the time frame, the reasoning goes, the longer the lines.