They’ve Been Popping Up, But Do They Pop?

The 15th DistrictThe 15th District at Isetan Orchard, L2 Wisma Atria

Retail is dead, goes the common lament. Long-term, single-brand, and one-category—such shops are shying away from malls as if to prove the point. In their places, the multi-label, many-product pop-up stores are, well, really popping up. Rather than offering just one category of merchandise, these present-day zahuo dian—or provision shops—with short-term leases bring together miscellany that can be conveniently grouped as “lifestyle”. Whose life and whose style, the target is indistinct, but the product mix is invariably varied, as if to capture the desires of all and sundry.

Are we seeing retailers re-imagining their selling spaces? Not quite. General-merchandise retailing, temporarily installed in spaces between leases, so far, has been gift-shop-meets-mini-emporium, or Monoyono-merges-with-Yue Hwa. You sense you’ve seen them before and you probably have. Only now, they’re situated in bigger retail lots and their pop-up model creates a sense of urgency: check them out when you see them or you’ll miss them forever.

The thing is, so many of the present group of pop-up store operators are serial short-term retailers. Fail to notice them in one location, and you will likely encounter them in another. Exclusivity (even if only perceived) from the here-today-gone-tomorrow business approach is not quite there. Some of them are travelling road shows, taking up empty shops whenever and wherever they become available to them. Some are online stores first before going offline and consequently retaining both formats. All, by accounts of mall owners, keep their otherwise quiet corridors buzzy.

WE X TogetherlyW.E. X Togetherly at Isetan Orchard, L1 Wisma Atria

For those jaded by old-school retailing, perhaps a pop-up store is enticing. If, however, you’re a serious and frequent shopper, the persistent sameness of these retail ventures may prove to be anything but alluring. Just this past two months and in just one location, two pop-up retail concepts have appeared. Both are different in size, but they are linked by a commonality that is already seen in past and present pop-ups of like-minded operators.

In Isetan Orchard, closed as a department store last year, W.E. X Togetherly takes up the entire first floor, while, one level up, The 15th District occupies what is a newly marked out shop unit. Isetan owns the five floors on this end of Wisma Atria and manages the space independent of YTL Starhill Global Property Management, the landlord of the rest of the complex. The Japanese company, we have learned, does not charge rental for the temporary use of its idle units. Percentage of sales is collected instead. The two pop-up formats help Isetan keep its temporarily unfilled spaces engaged so that they would appear operationally active.

W.E. X Togetherly is touted as “Singapore’s largest pop-up store”. A collaborative venture that debuted in April, the set-up is by pop-up operator Workshop Element (an enterprise founded in 2012 by fashion designer Alfie Leong) and craft market organiser Togetherly (whose roving nature of their business has seen them pop up in assorted venues, from Singapore Flyer to Orchard Central). With W.E.’s fashion contacts and Togetherly’s list of artisans, the massive space is populated by sellers of disparate offerings.

WE X Togetherly 2The disparate stalls at W.E. X Togetherly at Isetan Orchard

A generous space, however, requires curatorial flair to yield appeal. W.E. X Togetherly, perhaps overwhelmed by the need to fill what was previously a one-floor expanse of a department store, succumbed to an approach consistent with leasing of a market or open-park exposition. A lack of stringent selection process meant that the breadth of merchandise, while commendable, lacked distinction, newness, and, in some cases, quality.

Perched above the largest is a modestly-sized pop-up newbie The 15th District. Started last year by “godfather of Singapore fashion” Daniel Boey as an e-magazine, The 15th District was conceived to appeal to “real folks who wish to know how to look good in clothes”. In time, the site became “jam-packed with lots of everything-you-wanted-to-know-but-was-afraid-to-ask type fashion and lifestyle questions, and tons of hacks to make your life a lot simpler and stylish.”

The brick-and-mortar representation of The 15th District isn’t quite “jam-packed” but in the laid-back spaciousness, it communicates in a style that’s akin to what it promotes on its website. Here, the setting, enhanced by repro vintage furniture placed for sale by Lorgan’s The Retro Store (also, interestingly, seller of bottled cold-brew coffee), gives the merchandise—a mix of food stuff, candles, skincare and grooming products, and (oddly) children’s clothes—the chance to be slowly viewed and appreciated. This is a hipster hub minus, regrettably, the hipsters.

The 15th District 2The retro-quirky set-up of The 15th Disrrict

Given the retail climate, it is hardly surprising that short term is the duration du jour. The pop-up’s temporariness is increasingly no different from a permanent shop that opens and closes less than a year later. Informal—and sometimes drifter—retailers consider the brief tenure a “good chance to test products and customer reaction”. Flash retailing, industry observers propose, give fledgling businesses the flexibility to locate their products in different spots since they are not tied down to long leases. Like those behind tech start-ups and flash-mob marketing, pop-up operators tend to be young risk-takers who are not resistant to try anything new, even if the new is not really novel or exceptional.

The pop-up stores that are seen these days are not quite what they were in the early years when they first appeared in the Noughties. They came to be called “pop ups” because they mostly appeared unannounced, in unsuspecting places for a relatively brief period of time. One of the pioneers of this new but not lauded retail format was the “guerrilla stores” conceived by Comme des Garçons in 2004. The idea was to situate a “season-less” store somewhere that’s clearly not an obvious choice, preferably a location that retains its original architecture and use. According to a media release by the company at that time, “The location will be chosen according to its atmosphere, historical connection, geographical situation away from established commercial areas or some other interesting feature.” More importantly, the guerrilla stores must close in a year.

The first guerrilla store opened in Berlin in a former bookstore. In Singapore, they have appeared in a shop house in Chinatown as well as in a classroom of the former Methodist Girls’ School in Mount Sophia, both co-operated by Theseus Chan of the multi-disciplinary design firm WERKS. It is not certain how well the stores performed or if consumers even understood what they were really about, but the fact that this little island of ours could afford more than of them (there were three in total) may be indication that Singaporeans were receptive to retail that does not run like one in a CapitaLand Mall Asia shopping centre.

First Storey front roomFirst Storey 2nd roomOne of the earliest pop-up stores, the now-defunct First Storey at Tiong Bahru

The pop-up stores now come in spaces where you’ll already find retail outlets. In some strange instances, even a sale in a department store’s event space is called a pop-up. For sure, these temporary set-ups presently come in different shapes and sizes, as well as locations. For many landlords, the pop-up is now a legitimate retail format.

Locally-operated pop-up stores that we now see in large numbers are a fairly recent phenomenon. One of the earliest to crack the market was First Storey, a men’s outfitter that, true to the original spirit of the pop-up, really just popped up in Tiong Bahru in September of 2012 (and remained there for only six months). Conceived by the duo behind the now-discontinued bag label Carryall James, Eric Lee and Young Kong Shin, First Storey was unique in that it was the first to bring together local men’s wear label during a time when men’s wear, while a growing business, wasn’t the first choice of budding fashion retailers.

It was one of the earliest stockists of Singaporean labels: 13 at the start that included Mr Howard (by Taiwan-born, Singapore-based designer Tsai Ming Hung), Fabrix (a bag line by entrepreneur/craftsman Colin Chen), Coupé-Cousu (by designing duo Alex Yeo and Xie Shanqian, alumni of the inaugural Fashion Incubator Project by TAFF, SPRING Singapore, and Parco Singapore), and, surprisingly, shirt maker Crocodile that was road-testing a capsule of “more forward” designs (which, as it turned out, was a lame attempt at transcending its dad-shirt status). Spread over “rooms”, First Storey assembled a diverse group of mostly design-savvy labels without putting to the test the limits of the familiar.

So successful and appealing was what the First Storey team had done that when former Crocodile employees took up employment with the merchandising team of Metro, they did not conceal where their inspiration came from in setting up certain corners of Metro’s new outlet that opened in 2014 in Centrepoint. It didn’t square with conventional thinking that a small, indie retailer could have such influence over one of Singapore’s oldest department stores.

Naiise at Suntec CityThe latest Naiise store at L1, Suntec City

Modelling a business on the success of others’ is, of course, not an unexpected or uncommon approach. Retailers in Singapore are rather like F&B operators. Declare croissants with salted egg yolk custard filling popular and you can start counting how many bakeries quickly follow suit. Now that cheese tarts are the rage (see the queue at Bake Cheese Tarts, Ion Orchard: it’s so long that a separate holding area some 200m away had to be set up to contain the crowd), pastry shops are scrambling to hawk theirs.

Industry experts cite low barrier to entry as a reason why pop-up stores of miscellaneous goods now appear with such regularity. Not only are retailers aping the concepts of others, mall operators are getting into the game too. Suntec City’s last-to-open North Wing—following a three-year, S$410-million centre-wide renovation—is now the latest to offer pop-up stores after it failed to lure big names that they had initially hoped to attract.

In the main concourse of the North Wing, out of 14 units in the circular layout, eight appear to be pop-up shops, with sales/clearance outlets dominating the mix. It isn’t clear how such temporary leasing arrangement—here, essentially creating a cluster of short-term tenants—will impact the mall further down the road. Or perhaps, with a dismal occupancy rate, Suntec City is taking on this model as a stop-gap measure to keep its retail units filled and a dead zone alive.

MegafashThe Megafash pop-up store at L1, Suntec City

How does Suntec City, managed by a retail REIT (Suntec REIT), then distinguish itself from other less-central malls such as 112 Katong, another shopping centre where pop-up operators now gravitate towards? It does not, since it has not put its own spin on the gathering of such short-term sellers or work with these tenants to create something that has the potential to spur repeat shopper visits.

Between Towers 1 and 2, where Suntec City’s North Wing is situated, a pair of stores offers somewhat similar product categories: lifestyle and fashion goods, all displayed with a jumble sale vibe. These are the “permanent” Naiise and the pop-up Megafash, and they’re practically neighbours. Both, interestingly, are e-taliers-turn-offline-operators. As a salesperson at Megafash in Suntec City enlightened, “For our products, you need to touch and feel them, and you can’t do that on screen.”

It is ironic that while we’re led to believe brick-and-mortar retailing is facing relentless competition from e-commerce, it is online stores going offline that appear to save physical shops from redundancy. However, what are these outlets stocking in terms of tactile quality that requires product-to-person contact in order to encourage what has been elusive purchases?

Megafash 3The cutesy bric-a-brac in Megafash at Suntec City

WE X Togetherly 3One of the four vendors offering terrariums at W.E. X Togetherly

Despite the ostensible variety on stock, the current crop of multi-label pop-up stores share similar product offerings. A formula appears to be in application. There are clothing of local genesis, craft-based accessories, eyewear, tote bags, new-age-y skincare lines, homemade foodstuff, pretty stationery, cutesy bric-a-brac, and—whether by default or demand, it isn’t clear—terrariums. In W.E. X Togetherly alone, four stalls sell plants in glass containers, enclosed and open, as well as small potted or air plants.

The lack of distinguishing features and adequately dissimilar merchandise easily leads visitors to describe many of these pop-up stores—even in different locations—as typical. Eyewear brand Visual Mass and walking stick label The Cane Collective, for examples, are available at both W.E. X Togetherly and Megafash. The lack of compelling visual displays, too, seem a common thread as most pop-up stores allow the participating brands to set up their respective stalls (mostly just a table) the way the latter see fit or attractive. Some stores don’t appear to have staff arrange their merchandise at all. It is not likely shoppers are expecting Barney’s New York, but no one, it’s reasonable to say, hope to encounter pasar malam on concrete instead of tar.

To be sure, the range can be rather staggering, running the gamut from the ho-hum (Singlish slogan T-shirts) to the kitschy (curry puff cushions) to the rather bizarre (nasi lemak-flavoured tea!). And you’ll learn too, that there could be a massive market for arts-and-craft jewellery. After a while, it’s hard to see the difference between them and *Scape Marketplace, the open-air bazaar that has been home to young entrepreneurs hawking “design”.

Workshop ElementChampion of local designers and brands, Workshop Element at L3, 313@Somerset

Local design is, in fact, the main sell. Many tout their spaces as outlets for Singaporean talents and crafts people. Early champions of local labels include First Storey and serial pop-up merchant Workshop Element. At Megafash in 112 Katong, a store-front poster urges visitors to root for “indie fighters”. The epithet reads, “Join us in our movement to support local makers.” This is characteristic of pop-up stores, even those abroad (where localised assortment usually constitute up to 50% of the mix), but here, in the malls, our pop-up retailers offer local products of uneven quality.

The pool of local brands, although larger than it’s ever been, is not deep with those that have creativity and quality, and the savvy of polished branding. Despite years of promoting local fashion, Workshop Element has not been able to suss out those that can even simply be described as good. They’ve installed themselves in different malls, yet each time, they have gone without merchandising control and are stocked with the same motley group of labels that seem to have little elsewhere to go.

Still, it is laudable that there are those such as Workshop Element’s Alfie Leong who is unwavering in his belief in own-turf talents and has continued to offer a retail platform for local designers. Another entrepreneur who is gung-ho about the home-grown is Dennis Tay of Naiise. A self-confessed Apple fan boy, Mr Tay believes design “can better your everyday life”, as he told New Union. “I think we also wanted to go offline because we do want to change the retail experience.”

Naiise at 122 KatongNaiise at L1, 112 Katong

Naiise Central Clark QuayNaiise at L2, Clark Quay Central

One of the most visible of the new-gen multi-label stores, Naiise (pronounced “nice”, not “nayse”) presently does not consider itself a pop-up store although it looks like one, and has, until last year, been one (actually two). Founded in 2013 as an online business, Naiise, as one staffer at its Suntec City store enthusiastically elucidated, has, since 2014, gone “permanent”. The to-stay brick-and-mortar set up must have worked for Naiise as it was reported that the company posted revenues of S$2.5million last year, with a present total of six physical stores across our island.

Its latest in Suntec City’s North Wing, opened two weeks ago, takes over the former Mporium, also a multi-label, many-product store that lasted about six months after its opening at the end of October last year. Given its duration, Mporium was, technically, a pop-up store although they did not claim to be one. Industry observers thought that, with their weak merchandising, it was destined to be. It is noticeable that Naiise invested little in the fit-out of its new store: Mporium’s fixtures are retained and used, even its shop front is not changed (nor its colour)—just inexpensive black signage plastered above to announce the arrival of the new operator.

Perhaps this explains the quick success of Naiise. Keeping the start-up cost low by taking over failed retail stores too was the approach seen in the Clark Quay Central store, a 6,500-square-feet spread that was once the Singapore outpost of the Hong Kong design store G.O.D. Naiise, it seems, believes in big spaces; its stores are generally large. The flagship at The Cathay is 8,500 square feet or the size of three tennis courts.

Space Invashion WhiteSpace Invasion White at L2, 112 Katong

Naiise’s storming of malls, perhaps, suggests that the rise of those so-called “online natives” may not have such a profound impact on retailers offering a mixed bag of goods that is better appreciated by physically looking through it. Its numerous stores may have, in fact, created an environment where more online business are encouraged to go offline, such as Space Invasion White, a name that could be suggestive of its objective.

Not quite an assault, Space Invasion White has two pop-up stores—one in Orchard Gateway, the other in 112 Katong, where Naiise, too, has very visible presence. Founded in 2013, also the year Naiise started, Space Invasion White’s offline avatar has the “aim to be a representative of local street wear fashion”. In the end, that alone, perhaps, isn’t quite enough as its merchandise mirrors the stock assortment of other pop-up stores: vintage-y fashion, colourful patterned socks, charm-like accessories, adorable stationery, kitschy enamel ware, and more canvas satchels to activate the jelak reflex.

Sulian Tan-Wijaya, once a Singapore Tourism Board director in charge of “tourism shopping” and the Singapore Fashion Festival, and now an executive director at Savills Singapore, told The Straits Times in March this year that pop-up stores “add diversity to the mall mix with their eclectic offerings and generate shopper traffic”.

More, unfortunately, does not mean diversity. Eclectic is often the euphemism for mish-mash. It is heartening to see retail spaces occupied, but those who fill them with stuff need the elusive quality called flair.

Photos: Galerie Gombak

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