Using pop-ups to expand internationally

10 Aug 2016

International expansion can be a challenge even for the most developed businesses. But with the help of a controlled test to learn about your new market, such as a pop up, the risks become smaller and the potential to grow your business expands.

Whether you’re a world-leading brand or a small business, you will need to test the waters before expanding overseas. A pop-up can be a useful method for doing this. “Its versatility and relatively low cost, self-financing format should be part of any brands’ go-to-market plan,” agrees Erik Bruun Bindslev, founder of the international business development vehicle Merika.

We took a look at how brands have used pop-ups to expand internationally and gather valuable information about their new location and potential customers.

Build a community before you launch

When you’re looking out to new markets, doing a soft launch with a pop-up is a great way of building your initial community. This community will be important for starting those first conversations about your brand and building the buzz around your real launch. They’ll also provide you with valuable insights about your potential customers and where they live, work and shop.

Kit and Ace
Kit and Ace's Shoreditch pop-up, The Space

Before the Canadian apparel brand, Kit and Ace, expanded to London they launched a pop-up called ‘The Space’ to build their community. Christina Albe, the UK Brand Manager explains, “popping up before we opened a shop was absolutely crucial for building community. It gave us an opportunity to introduce ourself to our new neighbourhood and also create a teaser taste for the brand. We worked with brands local to the area to create a better connections. East London Liquor Company was the first brand we collaborated with during our pop-up in Shoreditch. They proved to be not only great bartenders, but also great friends and collaborators for events even today.”

Liberty is also using pop-ups to test and increase brand awareness in new countries. Last year, the London-based brand tested stores in the US, Italy and the Netherlands. One of these included partnering with upscale US retailer Nordstrorm, which sold their famous flowers of Liberty collection. They hosted pop-ups in six Nordstrom stores across the country to offer US customers ‘a taste of the Liberty magic.’


Partner up to help create hype

Last year, Club Monaco famously appeared in Copenhagen’s NOMA to create a buzz before the brand’s launch in the city. They created a small concept store within the world-famous restaurant, tailoring the products to match Noma’s Scandinavian aesthetic. These types of collaborations are a really interesting way for brands to leverage each other’s reputation and find new fans.

Club Monaco

“Rather than promote the brand for a local branch, they are spreading the ethos and the methods used by the godfather of New Nordic Cuisine,” explains Bindsley. “The pop-up drives the brand awareness. The format of a pop-up, which is that of a temporary ‘limited time only’ event; creates hype and is an excellent way to launch or re-position a brand…”

Similarly, LA brand AGOLDE chose Topshop Oxford Circus for their pop-up, which they also timed with London Fashion Week. ”It seemed like the obvious first choice,” said CEO Amy Williams. “The space is much more than a traditional retail store, consisting of five floors of immersive fashion that sets the bar high for fashion and retail. It's truly a mecca for cool girls who embody that independent fashion spirit, which aligns perfectly with our AGOLDE customer.”

Amy touches on something that is crucial when looking for a new space in a new city - having as much understanding of your potential new customers, and their shopping behaviours, as possible. A pop-up encourages you to think carefully about what your brand stands for and where can you best show that off to the people who matter most?


Do a test run

The more you can test your brand out in foreign waters, the more chances you’ll have to learn from your mistakes. What you find out during your pop-up can help shape your business strategy for that market as well as inform other international expansion plans.

For a successful store, location is everything. Being in the right place by the right people is a key driver of growth and will also help you decide if that really is the best country, city or even street for your brand. Kit and Ace knew from their Shoreditch pop-up that the East London crowd was the most important to them in London. As Albe explains, “we knew to be relevant and authentic in the London market, we had to connect with the East London crowd first and then work our way west.”

Key logistics also need to be tried out before a launch and practicing everything from staffing to opening hours to managing inventory and store layouts helps out in the long run. Additionally, recruitment can be tricky in unknown places, so establishing how you’re going to find the best local talent to work with is always a bonus. “Use your personal network first, online services second,” offers Bindsley. “Then find a local manager or right hand person who can navigate the interviews with you.”

Albe adds, “our pop-up was also a great opportunity to test event formats and topics for our new market. Content, we found, was a huge draw for Londoners. This is something that we’ve incorporated into the way our UK stores are run today.”


Work out cultural differences

Every new location requires its own strategy, whether it’s just a street away from your previous one or on the other side of the world. But when you’re taking your business abroad, there may be crucial cultural differences that need to be understood before you launch. From tone of voice, to opening hours, to finding out which products sell best, testing internationally can help you do that.

“The fact that you get to interact with your customers is gold when entering a new market; there are lots of things which even the most cosmopolitan global nomad has not thought of,” suggests Bindslev. “Getting to know your customer is done best face-to-face and a pop-up is a great way to do this. It will save you both money and time.”