Melissa Gonzalez, founder and CEO of the Lion’esque Group, started her popup shop consultancy in 2009 after leaving Wall Street in what she calls a “good accident.”

The former vp of institutional equity sales at Merriman Capital amicably split from her firm in search of more creative endeavors, taking her severance package and funneling it into a retail business. In the early stages, designers would pay for her insights with clothing as currency — seven years later she has successful projects with Marc Jacobs and Estée Lauder under her belt.

Gonzalez helps brands build popup stores, starting with ideation, continuing through collaboration with real estate partners to identify storefronts, and conducting data analysis on consumer sentiment and engagement. Her robust roster of clients ranges from fashion brands to lifestyle and food companies that sell products ranging from peanuts to sporting goods.

Depending on lease contracts, the popups run anywhere from 3-4 days for those focused on flash marketing and brand awareness, to up to three months for companies conducting hard sales and data collection. Recent Lion’esque efforts include a popup for Sally Hansen during New York Fashion Week last fall that integrated a “ManiMatch” virtual reality app for consumers to digitally paint on nail polish before selecting a shade at the nail bar.

A consumer tries the ManiMatch virtual reality app at the Sally Hansen popup story during New York Fashion Week in fall 2015.

A consumer tries the ManiMatch virtual reality app at the Sally Hansen popup store at New York Fashion Week

Part of the success of Lion’esque, she said, can be attributed to the ongoing transformation of retail to incorporate more experiential marketing.

“Popups have really evolved over the years partially because retail has evolved,” Gonzalez said. “It went from emerging brands to popups for everybody, and working with these brands to tell a story in these spaces.”

Gonzalez conceded that in recent years the term “popup” has even started to pick up a bit of a stigma, she said, as companies shy away from the vernacular in favor favor of “retail experience” or “concept store.” Retailers worry that the term popup cheapens the product being sold, making its worth feel as fleeting as the store itself.

“People will host a photography class or a trunk show and call it a popup,” she said. “A trunk show is a trunk show. If you’re not telling a story in a space and it’s not a branded experience, it’s not really a popup store.”

Popup shops appeal to brands testing new products and offerings in order to gauge interest among partners and target clients before making a move toward permanence. Successful popup stores are increasingly transforming into long-term stays in recent years — Gonzalez said that of the 12 stores she helped launch in Q1 of 2016, four are negotiating long-term leases.

Even as retail increasingly shifts to e-commerce and online sales, she said there will continue to be a place for popup shops. Consumers still crave physicality, and developing spaces with a high level of engagement is key.

“One of our clients is a mattress company, and while they might have a great social media presence and do well online, there’s something to be said about coming to lay on the bed for five minutes,” Gonzalez said.

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Lessa Sleep popup, produced by The Lion’esque Group.

Location is also key to a popup store’s success, although it requires a brand truly knowing its clientele. Gonzalez noted that many clients reach out with aspirations for a shop in Soho, New York’s tony shopping district. Despite Soho’s retail allure, she said it will not necessarily draw the proper clientele, and counsels her clients accordingly.

She noted three separate unnamed menswear companies that she persuaded to move their popup shops to decidedly less-glamorous Midtown, where they experienced tripled sales.

“The Midtown man is not going to go to Soho on his lunch break or make it downtown before 7 p.m.,” she said. “They travel out of convenience. If they find something they like, they buy the same thing in multiple colors.”

Looking toward the future, Gonzalez anticipated that the Internet of Things (and the “Internet of Clothing”) will continue to have an impact on the popup space, as shoppers seek more connected garments.

“[The Internet of Things] is tricky of course, because people go to physical spaces because they want something real, but with that they’ll be able to make even more customized experiences in a storefront as a result of the online experiences,” she said. “Then they can serve you better in the store for a VIP experience.”

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