Bookselling In-depth: Pop-Up Shops and Store Kiosks [3]

Retailers are branching out from permanent locations to test pop-up shops and store kiosks as inventive ways to stand out, to creatively package their brand, and to provide a unique consumer experience. Online craft website Etsy created a storefront location [5] in New York City in 2012 that succeeded at attracting new customers; the clothier Uniqlo drives pop-up trucks [6] full of merchandise around cities; and Sunglass Hut has maintained kiosks in malls [7] across the country since its inception more than 40 years ago.

Several independent bookstores have created pop-up shops and kiosk locations to increase profits, to introduce new customers to an existing store, or to test out opening a second location. While some booksellers have experienced better-than-expected success with auxiliary locations, others have found that the cost and time commitment can outweigh the benefits.

Location, location, location!

Vroman’s Bookstore [8] in Pasadena, California, began holding outdoor tent sales after its inventory of marked-down merchandise began to occupy too much space in the store and in storage. The costs for the tent and the permit were high, and adding the time and staff needed to pull the items out of storage, set up, sell, and break down made it an expensive undertaking.

Looking ahead to the next tent sale in spring of 2013, Vroman’s President Allison Hill began to brainstorm other options. An empty storefront across from the main shop became the new home of the sale in the form of a six-week pop-up shop, after Hill’s pitch — that the pop-up would bring publicity, foot traffic, and some rent, even if reduced, to an otherwise vacant space — was accepted by the landlord. To keep costs down, Hill negotiated for the utilities to be covered by the rent; a nearby restaurant allowed the pop-up to use its Internet connection at no cost; and staff used Hill’s old cell phone, which was set up on a no-contract plan. Within two days of opening the pop-up, Vroman’s had made its full rent back in sales, and the landlord had received a bid on the space from an interested retailer.

Village Books holiday pop-up shop

Village Books [9] in Bellingham, Washington, was recruited by a local mall to create a holiday pop-up shop. Securing a very good deal on a space (which was about the same price as a mall kiosk), the store opened in October 2011 and ran to mid-January 2012. Village Books co-owner Chuck Robinson explained that the goal of the pop-up was threefold: to draw Canadian shoppers from the north-end mall down to the shops in the Fairhaven historic district at the south end of town; to bring customers into his Fairhaven stores, both the bookstore and its sister shop, Paper Dreams; and to use the pop-up as a test to see what running a second location would entail. The pop-up was ultimately profitable for Village Books.

Mysterious Galaxy [10], with branches in San Diego and Redondo Beach, had a cautionary experience with its kiosk in a local mall. The kiosk was to serve as an advertisement to market the new, nearby Redondo Beach store to patrons of the mall. With the enthusiastic support of mall officials, Managing Partner Terry Gilman established a month-to-month lease on the kiosk and tried to keep costs to a minimum, but the kiosk was ultimately a money loser. Despite gaining a few customers, Mysterious Galaxy found that the kiosk did not draw enough mall patrons to make the venture profitable. 

Matthew Stowe manages two store kiosks at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) for Greenlight Bookstore [11] in Brooklyn, New York. The kiosks are open during performances or events, essentially making them seasonal, part-time branches of the store, but the relationship with BAM has been very positive for the bookstore. 

Advertising the new location

Hill marketed Vroman’s pop-up shop aggressively. Store staff handed out fliers to customers, posted the news on social media, and took an ad out in the local newspaper. “Word spread really, really fast,” said Hill. “There was something about the fact that it was temporary that people felt this was a once in a lifetime chance. It’s a mentality that customers have now that they expect to get a deal and they want to feel they’re getting value.” Customers who shopped at the pop-up also Tweeted about the deals they got, sending followers in to check out the store.

Village Books put the word out about the holiday pop-up in its quarterly magazine, placed an ad in BC Bookworld (British Columbia’s author and publishing newspaper) for the holiday season, and put an insert in the local paper to advertise the toy section of the pop-up. In the pop-up store, a flat screen TV advertised information about programs, events, and features of the main shop to attract shoppers.

Mysterious Galaxy mentioned its mall kiosk in its weekly e-newsletter, while Greenlight advertised its BAM kiosks via social media.

Curating inventory and managing point-of-sale

Vroman's Bookstore pop-up shop

Vroman’s pop-up, stocked with marked-down merchandise, made a substantial profit, and increased awareness of and drove traffic to the main store. Staff rotated stock regularly, put out new items once a week, and sent announcements to bring in customers each round.  The pop-up shop was kept on the same computer system as the main store and in real time, and, while Hill expected to see its success decline as weeks passed, the momentum held.

Outfitting the store with furniture was made easier by another stroke of luck. The space had originally housed a wine bar, so there was a large counter available for registers and floor-to-ceiling wine cases that easily accommodated face-out titles. For the rest, Vroman’s brought in tables and set books out in boxes.

The Village Books mall pop-up shop offered an array of kids’ toys in addition to books. A large section of Melissa & Doug toys and significant store signage brought in many shoppers, and kids’ books were a huge hit — so much so that Robinson said the pop-up could have carried and sold more, particularly licensed items. It also stocked literary fiction, gifts, and holiday items. Robinson soon discovered that he and colleagues had underestimated the amount of popular fiction and nonfiction they needed to stock, and that gift items and holiday decorating items did not do as well. Village Books transferred some of the unpopular items to the main shop to sell through.

The Village Books accounting department tracked all expenses for the stores as separate units — every expense and profit was attached to the store it came from. The pop-up’s point-of-sale system mirrored the main store, so inventory could easily be looked up or transferred between the two systems while still keeping the locations separate.

Mysterious Galaxy’s kiosk stocked popular fiction and nonfiction titles and kept its POS system connected with the main shop; however, Gilman soon discovered that the kiosk wasn’t drawing customers. She used the term “kiosk avoidance” to describe how mall patrons actively steered clear of the kiosk and noted that many people are accustomed to kiosks housing aggressive salespeople. With the mall’s only bookstore closing years before, Gilman, along with the store’s supporters, believed that the buyers would be there, but she now believes that the problem was likely the demographics of the mall’s patrons.

The Greenlight kiosk POS system is attached to the main shop, and the inventory is representative of the main shop’s mission. “We have a basic rotating selection of fiction, nonfiction, and point-of-sale titles,” said Stowe. “We try to match our fiction to the main store’s general emphasis on Brooklyn and New York writers, as well as contemporary literary fiction. The nonfiction is a combination of books about music, theater, art, and current events to match BAM’s programming and clientele. On top of that, I work with our book buyer to create lists and curate specifically for each individual performance (from Shakespeare titles for Julius Caesar to 1970s New York for a John Cale [of The Velvet Underground] performance).” With the main shop being just a few blocks away, Stowe carries inventory over to the kiosks.

The staffing puzzle

Two employees staffed Vroman’s pop-up store each day, though it could have been staffed by one, Hill said. The employees enjoyed working in the pop-up and were across the street from the main store, so switching up staff was easy.

Knowing that Village Books needed to hire new staff to help with the pop-up but not wanting to post only new employees at the temporary location, Robinson explained the decision was made to integrate the staff. A veteran bookseller was paired with a new employee any time there were two people staffing the pop-up shop, and the new staff members were rotated into the mix at the main store in order to bring the culture of the independent bookstore to the pop-up in the mall.

Robinson also considers himself lucky that Community Outreach Director Paul Hanson had just come on board and could take on the responsibility of coordinating the pop-up staff. Robinson said that it would have been difficult to spread the work out among the staff and noted that having a dedicated person to coordinate aspects of the pop-up shop, particularly staffing, was important.

“Staffing was probably the most difficult piece,” Robinson said. “Paul described it as playing 3D chess and backgammon at the same time — I would recommend to giving quite a bit of thought to that.”

Due to mall regulations, Gilman had to staff Mysterious Galaxy’s kiosk for a 12-hour shift daily. Staff walked over from the Redondo Beach shop and also helped carry over inventory. Staffing was one of the hardest pieces of the puzzle and also one of the costliest. If the bookstore were to do it again, Gilman said she would hire a separate manager to staff the kiosk and handle all aspects, rather than assigning the main shop manager to oversee it.

Greenlight hired Stowe specifically to manage its BAM kiosks and to work with the venue. He staffs the kiosks himself during events and will bring a staff person from the main shop over when needed. The schedule is coordinated between Stowe and the general manager at the main shop, who handles the scheduling for all of the employees.

Reflections and recommendations

If the right space became available at the right time, Vroman’s would consider opening a pop-up again, Hill said, adding that the clearance shop was one of the best things they had ever tried. “It’s such a good example of trying to look at things differently,” she said. “We could easily keep doing a tent sale every year for the rest of our lives, but I’m glad we took the time to look at it. It’s also a good lesson in doing things that are easy, rather than hard. This is one of the easiest things we’ve ever done.”

For those who may be thinking about opening a pop-up, Hill advised, “Test it first and don’t commit to a year — a pop-up by definition is supposed to be a temporary thing. Just get really creative about keeping your expenses down. You’re not opening a store; you’re doing a small venture.”

Robinson said that Village Books would attempt a pop-up again if the critical elements were in harmony. “In terms of our expectations, it ended up being more profitable than we thought it would be,” he said. “We had to make some adjustments when we were there staffing-wise — over and under staffing, guessing on traffic flows. But we thought the exposure was worthwhile.” However, in terms of purely luring new customers to his existing businesses, Robinson believes that, in spite of the pop-up’s success, there are other less costly ways in terms of time, energy, and expense.

One element that Robinson has found to be incredibly helpful is his local Small Business Development Center. “We got engaged with them years ago and because their services are free, we have just kind of continued to take advantage of it,” he explained. “People go when they have a specific question; we just book a meeting and go on a regular basis and review where we are businesswise. We’ve used it in many ways as a sounding board.”

Gilman said that she would consider running a Mysterious Galaxy kiosk again but would take into consideration all that she’s learned. “I think you have to be in the right mall, and I think it helps establish your brand and forms awareness of your store,” she said.

Gilman advises anyone considering a kiosk to negotiate for a trial basis on the rent to see if it works, as a kiosk is no cost to the mall. She also recommended hiring a separate person to manage staffing of the store and that the staff be trained to relay the overall message of the company.