The holiday season is here, and has brought with it the usual cheery light and window displays, thrum of holiday music, and explosion of holiday discounts and promotions. In recent years, though, brands have gone beyond deals to lure the attention of gift shoppers - holiday pop up stores are popping up seemingly everywhere, proliferating surprisingly quickly. While pop up stores are not brand new - the term first appeared in the early 2000s - they now represent approximately $10 billion in sales revenue and claim brands like Amazon, Facebook, Target, Pantone, and Good Housekeeping as participants. What is driving the rise of these instagrammable temporary shopping venues?

The Growth of Experiential Shopping

Millennials, whose annual spending is projected to reach $1.4 trillion and account for 30% of total retail sales by 2020, gravitate towards experiences. They're also transforming the shopping behaviors of previous generations. This is, no doubt, partially driven by the influence of social media and the "share / like" culture it's created. And it's reflected in total consumer spending. Spending on clothing has declined by 20% this century, while spending on travel, hotels, and restaurants and bars is growing rapidly - in some cases, setting records.

The influence of social media and shift of consumer attention to experiences over ownership has certainly has a significant impact on the way brands market and sell their products. But it has also coincided with a number of other trends.

Retail brands are struggling. The past few years we have seen a number of high-profile bankruptcies and vast store closures, as well as retail companies' stocks hitting multi-year lows. Due to sales lost to e-commerce, rising minimum wages, and in some locations, startlingly high rent, brick and mortar retailers struggle to turn or maintain a profit. Online shopping has also led to democratization of product sales. Brands that previously reached consumers through wholesalers are now selling direct-to-consumer. Consumers are more empowered than ever by transparency in pricing, easier access to product comparisons, and a plethora of digital marketplaces in which to place a purchase.

Despite doomsday predictions, brick and mortar didn't die - instead, it found a new role in the retail shopping ecosystem. Physical locations began to focus less on stocking and moving inventory, and more on communicating brand values, collecting customer data, and providing personalized product experiences.

Pop ups - which are about 80% less expensive than traditional physical retail outlets - capitalize on the growing desire to find - and share - unique experiences. They also provide a way for brands to build a relationship with customers in person, while driving awareness, adoption and conversion on more cost-effective digital channels.

How are companies leveraging the pop-up model to drive their brand home for consumers? Let's take a look at a few ways brands are getting in the pop-up game this holiday season.

Getting (Temporarily) Physical

Wayfair, the e-commerce home goods retailer, opened its first two pop-up stores this holiday season. Neither location will carry inventory, but instead allow customers to browse a limited selection of home good products and seasonal decor and place orders for next-day or two-day delivery. A "how-to" section will help customers explore fabric swatches for custom upholstered pieces, and home design employees will guide visitors through Wayfair's virtual interior design service. Bob Sherwin, Wayfair's VP of Marketing, says of the pop-ups: "Similar to any marketing channel, this is just an attempt to make our great experience come to life in a physical format." Their aspiration? Not sales, but an increase in customer engagement and loyalty.

Bringing Content to Life

Fatherly is a digital lifestyle brand that provides news, advice, and product recommendations for parents. This year, they launched a pop-up event in New York where families can test their curated recommendations for 2018's best toys. The pop-up features a stocked lineup of programming, like an art gallery by LEGO, a ball pit sponsored by RXBAR Kids, and an arts and crafts hour by Private Picassos. Fatherly is not the only digital content brand to open temporary physical spaces - Thrillist has for several years hosted a "Holiday Hideaway," and Good Housekeeping partnered with Amazon this year to open a pop-up in the Mall of America where visitors can test 40 products curated by the magazine and place purchases through Amazon.

Designed to be Shared

Getting an early jump on the holiday season, Canon opened their "Canon Portals" pop-up in November, which lets visitors experiment with their automatic models and teaches them how to take better pictures. The pop-up featured six immersive "portals," each designed to focus on a specific photo-taking technique. Workshops and photo walks were available with Canon instructors for those who wanted to dive even deeper, and brand ambassadors were positioned throughout the pop-up to provide tips and answer questions. Visitors could even print physical copies of the pictures they took in the pop-up to take home as a souvenir. The multi-room activation designed for maximum social media shareability is a popular move by brands hoping to gain exposure - Everlane, Yankee Candle, Coach, Converse and Google are just a few testing this approach.

Pop-ups are being embraced by a wide variety of brands: e-commerce retailers looking to establish a physical presence, content brands hoping to build brand affinity, and traditional retailers aiming to generate buzz and drive online conversions. While the holiday season will likely be over before we know it, we can be fairly certain that the trend towards experiential shopping and pop-ups will continue to fill storefronts and our social media feeds - even if only for a little while.

Published on: Dec 27, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.