Why retailers are opening stores that don’t sell anything

At the South Coast Plaza mall in Orange County, California, French luxury retailer Van Cleef & Arpels has created a series of installations designed to evoke a “dream-like landscape.”

January 31, 2019

Visitors passed through mirrored rooms with umbrellas suspended from the ceiling and took photos of the pop-up space that opened for a period last October.

Such spectacles are becoming commonplace for shoppers, with retail brands across the world creating Instagram-ready rooms that focus on wowing the customer and encouraging social media posts. The trend is a boon for commercial real estate landlords renting these spaces to pop-ups and longer-term installations.

“It’s a phenomenon,” says Taylor Coyne, Research Manager of Retail for JLL. “These spaces are not really designed for sales. They are much more about sending a message to customers. And they are a way to bring people into physical spaces when so much shopping is happening online.”

Trading sales for likes?

In Downtown Los Angeles, beauty retail behemoth Sephora took over an old theater and sold tickets to a “personal immersion” event, where guests could frolic in tubs of gold confetti, sit on gigantic faux watermelon wedges and pose on a flower-bedecked pink convertible. In New York City, beauty brand Winky Lux launched a Winky Lux Experience, replete with life-sized lemon juicers and tiny tea rooms.

Brands are investing in these spaces with little expectation of a return in the form of sales. But Coyne says that the press mileage and social media buzz generated by these showcases is invaluable.

“People come in, take photos and tag the brands — it’s a great exercise in visibility,” she says. “In terms of exposure, it pays for itself. That is especially important given that many of the brands doing these events are new and emerging, and have to find a way to stand out.”

These pop-ups can run for a few days up, a few months, or longer. The Museum of Ice Cream, which has had pop-ups in Los Angeles and New York, has a permanent home in San Francisco, where visitors can gaze at cookie carousels and loll about in tubs of sprinkles (visitors pay $38 to get in; ice cream included).

La La Land

While the trend in Instagram-able stores in the U.S. is largely concentrated in New York and Los Angeles, it is starting extend beyond the coasts. The Winky Lux Experience popped up in Chicago and Atlanta. And it wasn’t only about the experience. It was designed to move product as well. The nine individual rooms were designed in accordance with the products showcased within them. The “cloud room” was intended to push a “light-as-air primer.”

“This trend particularly suits beauty and fashion brands because of the ability to weave whimsical visual stories out of product selections,” Coyne says.

It’s happening beyond U.S. borders as well. In Singapore late last year, Giorgio Armani took over a large glass box, installed a red gorilla at the front, and allowed shoppers to take photos in the “Lip Maestro” room, where an entire wall was studded with shiny red balloon lips.

What’s next?

After several instances of flower-bedecked entrances and ball pits stuffed with anything but balls, Coyne says that retailers need to continue thinking outside the box in order to differentiate themselves.

“The more retailers can align their Instagram rooms and spaces with their brand, the more room for innovation they have,” she says. “With this influx of new brands that sell similar goods, creating a clear and defined brand for customers to relate to should naturally help create unique spaces.”

Especially given that, despite the plethora of these pop-ups, shoppers don’t seem to have grown tired of them yet.

“I’m not sure when we’ll reach the tipping point,” Coyne says. “I think there’s more room for growth before we see the trend tapering off.”