In 1954, Gene Kelly starred in the motion picture “Brigadoon,” about a hidden village in the Scottish Highlands that appears for a single day, once every hundred years. As the story goes, two American tourists stumble upon Brigadoon, and Kelly’s character, Tommy, falls in love with one of the villagers who is unable to leave. The film’s storybook ending has the two lovers ending up together when Tommy eschews the real world to join Brigadoon as it once again disappears into the mists.

This story first appeared in the December 2, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

How does this relate to retail?

This curious village’s impermanence forced the character, Tommy, to make a choice — either seize the moment to grasp who he loved or risk losing her forever. Smart retailers are creating their own Brigadoons — “pop-up” (and “pop-in”) shops that compel a purchase while capturing their customers’ affections long after the temporary space disappears.

Pop-up shops have become retail’s new proving ground. These low-cost, high-return experiments do more than just offer a format to test products and services. The pop-up’s real strength is the buzz they can create through a unique, targeted and curated experience that is far more difficult to capture on a permanent basis. Even better, this venue is not consigned to any one type of retail business; established department stores, boutique start-ups and e-commerce powerhouses have all played around with the pop-up shop, and many to great success.

The smartest retailers will measure returns by much more than just sales figures. The most successful brands are focused on creating “retail moments” — memorable, high-touch experiences and product anchored by exceptional customer service. This approach to “heart share” and experience is the foundation of how we operate our retail properties, like The Grove in Los Angeles and The Americana at Brand in Glendale. It’s only natural, then, that pop-up shops are becoming an important part of our retail strategy.

Brands are building “heart share” that will pay dividends in sales, recognition and ongoing loyalty. Take Marc Jacobs. The company recently opened a pop-up with a unique twist: anyone who posted on Twitter or Instagram with a specific hashtag would be rewarded with store items. Customers responded by sending thousands of tweets — a significant reward, given that research shows a consumer’s tweet about a brand translates to an average of $20.37 in revenue. Several other companies, including Tommy Hilfiger, have since replicated this idea.

Likewise, at The Grove in Los Angeles, the online retailer Birchbox launched a pop-up that offered guests a chance to “Build Your Own Birchbox,” with beauty bar stations for sampling products, while also offering complimentary manicures and hairstyling. Birchbox went one step further by creating a tailored experience that drew in the customer even more. They had these fantastic lounge seating areas (complete with charging outlets) where staff provided style advice to relaxed customers enjoying the pleasant surroundings. The success of Birchbox’s pop-ups proved the relationship-building potential of curated experiences, and the company has since opened a permanent brick-and-mortar store in New York’s SoHo.

When considering a “pop-up,” retailers and brands need to cast over their customer and create some retail magic. If a pop-up is just a limited-time location to put a cash register and move product, then the opportunity is lost. Like the examples above, retailers have to recognize that customers are emotional beings who consistently value experiences over things. In today’s marketplace, where nearly every business venture seems to dabble in the pop-up model, decor, service and authentic experiences are just as key — and maybe even more so — as the merchandise on the shelves.

As holiday season approaches, there is no more important time to seize upon the emotional and communal power of a great retail experience. There is no better time to create that connection than amidst Christmas music, holiday lights and the feelings of good cheer. Shoppers are not just buying for themselves, but seeking out that perfect gift for friends and loved ones.

The holiday season is also a moment made for great “pop-ups” — a unique shopping experience that’s as special and time-limited as Santa’s visit. While pop-ups are particularly popular at this time of year, it is not a foregone conclusion that retailers will adopt the philosophy that they are not selling a product alone. For customers, it’s easy to spot the difference and the sales results usually follow suit.

The current wave of pop-up experiments is taking brick-and-mortar retail back to its roots and is pointing our industry in the right direction. Powerful retail experiences that are remarkable and immersive simply cannot happen on a smartphone or within a Web browser. The ultimate payoff is at that “Brigadoon” moment — when the pop-up disappears into the mist. If they did it right, then their customer is left not just with a purchase or the memory of a great retail experience, but also a deeper, lasting admiration for a brand that gave them something back. And that can last forever.
Rick J. Caruso is founder and chief executive officer of Caruso Affiliated, one of the largest, privately held real estate companies in the U.S. Caruso Affiliated’s properties include two of the highest-grossing retail centers in the world, The Grove and The Americana at Brand. He resides in Los Angeles.