The Pop-Up Queen: 5 Questions with Melissa Gonzalez on Making Retail Pop


The concept of brick-and-mortar stores continues to evolve, and immersive pop-up stores are one avenue for brands to develop deeper connections with customers.

Even Apple, the epitome of a brand with strong real-world presence, is building pop-up boutiques in luxury stores in Paris and London in anticipation of Monday’s Apple Watch reveal.

The trick is how brands can make pop-ups, which are temporary by nature, work. So we asked Melissa Gonzalez, who left a career on Wall Street to follow her passion and become a brand activation and pop-up architect, to share her insights.

The author of The Pop-Up Paradigm and founder of The Lion’esque Group in New York has produced more than 80 pop-up retail experiences in New York City and the Hamptons, and further afield in Los Angeles and at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, since 2009.

“The key to having customers really connect and the way to build relationships for customer loyalty is authenticity, then curation—like having a BFF who does both. Now that’s value-add,” she explains.

brandchannel asked Gonzalez, who was awarded recently awarded the 2015 Retail Innovator Award, what advice she’d give brands trying their first pop-up: “I always ask them what their goals are. Ideas are great, but start with your goals. Why are you doing it? Sales are a part, but not all.”

When determining the brand voice to craft the pop-up strategy, she says, “We ask about their brand promise. Why should a customer believe? Who is their target customer? Then we use that to figure out the story, the pictures, the window and the merchandise.”

More from our chat with Melissa:

brandchannel: What’s the minimum commitment involved to make pop-ups pay off?

Gonzalez: It’s a mixture of time and money. There are always free opportunities, but free time is money.

Brands should think three months in advance of their goal, story, design and brand awareness, so they can leverage partnerships and cross-market with their pop-ups. As for money, it’s hard to say, but in NYC, $6,000/month buys you 250 square feet. And on top of that, there’s staff, event marketing, insurance and WiFi costs.

Pop-ups work differently for up-and-coming brands versus established brands. J. Hilburn can use it to offer a personal stylist for further immersion in their brand offering, while Hermes, a luxury brand, can be accessible and offer intimacy without buy commitment.

bc: How important is interactive technology in the mix? Is technology helping pop-ups in terms of beacons, mobile marketing and creating a seamless experience.

Gonzalez: Again, it’s a range. For a brand like, it needs to be a shoppable showroom, lots of inventory. Whereas for, being an interactive catalog online is key: “I can see what I wear, remember it and purchase it.”

Newer emerging designers or brands should stick to storytelling. What’s the brand value proposition? Is there an adequate budget? Is this a trunk show or a pop-in-shop. And it should last three to six months.

The evolution of tech tools has evolved the experience, but it takes clear brand understanding of how to integrate it and what does or doesn’t work for the customer. Technology is great, but what’s the cost and will it work for your customer? Will they find it a value-add?

bc: Do pop-ups work better in-store or are they better out in the field or connected to an event?

Gonzalez: Both work. The NBA All-Star pop-up store with sneakers and related gear made a ton of sense. Favorite shoes were tied to different athletes each day.

And then there’s Art Basel or Sundance, events where there’s no short-term pop-up without a long-term lease.

As for what categories work best, it’s fairly well-rounded these days. But again, the difference is in goals. Is the pop-up helping brand awareness or is it about multi-product sales and immersive feelings?

bc: How do you determine the ROI of pop-ups? Do e-commerce and mobile ordering come into play?

Gonzalez: There’s traditional sales ROI, but for pop-ups, you have to know your in-store and online metrics in advance, and re-evaluate your performance after three to six months.

Use newsletters, social media channels, links, engagement, influencers and follow up and re-evaluate the performance.

In m-commerce, it depends on the brand and it’s a younger issue. For older or luxury brands, mobile is seeing more social interaction. I tell brands to make merchandising changes—color and style—and for marketing decisions, listen to what your customers are telling you.

Partnerships and co-branding are a growing opportunity for smaller brands and start-ups, but look for synergies and complementary portfolios. If the products don’t fit, don’t do it for money. The customer will know.

Also, price points have to make sense. While sometimes economical, don’t lose your message in co-branding. Pop-ups are a good way to test partnerships in beta before a fuller commitment or roll-out, like Sarah Jessica Parker and Nordstrom.

bc: So are pop-ups a temporary trend?

Gonzalez: The touch-feel gap will always be there, but pop-ups will evolve. Less store inventory. More touchable portfolio. Mobile trucks are popular now, letting men shop in mid-town Manhattan at the last minute. While the present form of pop-ups will evolve, it remains a smart use of physical spaces for short-term efforts.

Find out more from Melissa in her Shopify series—the introduction is below:


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