Do Pop-Ups Pay Off For Indie Beauty Brands?

In this edition of Beauty Independent’s ongoing series posing questions to beauty entrepreneurs, we ask 21 brand founders and executives: Have you participated in a pop-up and, if so, was it worth the investment?

Ilsa Manning Founder, Ilsa Fragrances

I have held multiple pop-up shops in various locations from markets to local businesses to Athleta. It was worth the investment because every chance to get the name out there and a sample into someone's hand is valuable.

I learned that, one, less is more. Make the setup easy, but impactful. Two, create a Facebook event and invite everyone that likes the page and everyone you're friends with. It gets the information out there and in front of people, and reminds them to go on the day. Three, be OK with not making a sale or not making lots of sales. Pop-ups are about getting the word out there about the product and the company (marketing and networking) as much as they are about sales.

MATTHEW STILLMAN Founder, Primal Derma

We’ve done a few pop-ups and, now that I’ve seen a few, I’m not sure who they are for, the vendors or the pop-up organizers trying to build their brand. I’m guessing it works for somebody, but it feels like a lot of effort and money for not a lot of return. It literally feels like gambling. The big payoff is rare. 

I’m always happy to listen to pitches to be included in them, but I haven’t heard any—since I’ve come to see them for the roll of the dice that they are—that make them seem like a good idea. That money and time seem like they can be more wisely spent.

Nancy Rimbergas Co-Founder, Earth Based Body

Starting out, we had to throw a lot against the wall to see what would stick. Finding “your people” is a process. We’ve invested in everything from one-day artisan shows to a three-month commitment in a pop-up shop. That’s how we view these things, [as] investments. They are a lot of work, but I always walk away with a new nugget of knowledge. 

First, there is no better way to get feedback from potential customers. Second, each interaction serves as a mini pitch, so your sales presentation really gets refined. Last, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet other makers and get to be a part of a supportive community so being a founder doesn’t feel as lonely.

Jennifer Elliott Founder and President, Enmarie Botanical Oils and Dry Brushes

Remove the thought from your mind that the pop-up is going to be a big money-making venture. Reframe the expectation. You are there to have a face-to-face experience and learn more about your customer. Think experience and exposure.

The customer will want to touch, pick up and sample your product. Pay attention to which products they are drawn to. Which product do they pick up first? Make sure your POS equipment is functioning properly and don’t bring more than five SKUs of each product. You can always ship it to them. 

Lastly, spend more time listening and less time talking. This is your opportunity to learn about your customer. We have participated in several pop-ups. From the brand perspective, I think pop-ups should be called "listen-ups.” A pop-up is an invaluable investment in terms of learning about your consumer and the questions they have about your products. If you have a direct-to-consumer business model, a pop-up is a fabulous way to have face time, to really connect with and learn more about your customer.  

They might share a skin issue they are experiencing that you hadn’t anticipated that your product might address or remedy. They might share misconceptions about your product. Their comments provide valuable feedback with regards to your ingredients, pricing and packaging. I also find that the customers want to hear your story personally and why you created your brand. It is a wonderful opportunity for you to refine and distill your elevator pitch.

Dee Morales Owner, Sweet Mary Jane

I decided a few days before the date that we should take advantage of Father’s Day and have a pop-up with our Bro line of men’s luxury CBD products and offer discounts on our Sweet Mary Jane. After all, we deserve a treat for taking care of our husbands and sons. We planned it for the Saturday before Father’s Day from noon to four. We set it up at a vacant office building on a fairly main street. We had our banners and our pretty display, and settled back to greet the crowd. 

Prior to the pop-up, my daughter told me we needed to do a joint pop-up shop with other vendors. I didn’t think we needed to, and we simply didn’t have the time or the connections to find like vendors. We sent messages and posts out to all our social media sources. Our friends and acquaintances had all wanted to learn more about our products, and I thought this would be a good way for them to sample and see them close up. We also put ads on Craigslist and all the other marketplaces and trading sites we could think of.

Our banner for the outside broke, and we couldn’t really display it because it was a windy day. We had one customer. One. Lesson learned. Thank you Mallory for not saying, “I told you so.”

Next time, I will take the time to connect with other vendors. I personally love pop-ups, and I am going to commit to getting a pop-up group together. You should search for a good location that has plenty of foot traffic. Seek out your customers. Next time, I will offer my loyal customer base a chance to get a great bonus or something to say thank you. Test your banners and equipment. Windy days and weather can take its toll. Yes, I will do this again a little smarter and a lot wiser. Viva la pop-up!

Danny Segal Brand and Creative Director, Rudy’s Barbershop

We do a ton of pop-ups, most recently at Seattle’s Skate Like a Girl event. It’s taken a lot of practice to refine them and make them go smoothly. We now have our own custom chairs and kit to use for events rather than having to bring things piecemeal. 

Pop-ups are definitely worth the investment if you have the right strategy going into them. For us, it’s about finding a place where we know our customer will be like a female skating event, a new city we’ve never been in, or a hip new shop that matches our aesthetic, and offering them something of value. [It's] easy for us since we can dole out free haircuts and also highlight our product line.

What I’ve learned is to keep working on finding the right places for a pop-up. Not all of the spots you think would work do work. Additionally, figure out how to give customers an experience and feel for your brand rather than just a free item. Do more than just a booth. Show them who you really are.

TESS TAYLOR Founder, Taylor + Tess

We recently tried out a new concept store in the Los Angeles area. It is a small, nontraditional brick-and-mortar spot located in the shopping center of an affluent neighborhood. Each month, a handful of brands can lease the space for $500. I loved the concept, thought the investment was relatively low, and was the only cosmetics brand in the space. 

However, this particular neighborhood closely resembles a ghost town in July, and the pop-up is a little hidden on the second floor. This pop-up experience was a loss, but the silver linings were networking and lessons learned.

Make sure you ask questions that go beyond aesthetics and whether or not it feels like a good fit. Will you be solely responsible for marketing? If you will not be working the pop-up, does the person who knows your products as well as you do? How much traffic does the area get? What season or month is it, and how will this affect sales? What are prospective customers looking for when they visit the area, and what are their demographics? How have sales been in the past? 

Ask to see reports if available. How many units do you need to sell to break even? This is your first objective. Are there competitors in the space or are you the only product offering in your category? If you’re popping up in a dense retail area, will you be competing against big box stores or specialized boutiques that locals frequent? Do you have unique signage, props and promotional items to decorate your space and attract customers?

In the future, we will use available marketing funds to host our own pop-up events and to partner with other brands that align with our purpose and complement our product line.

Jazmin Alvarez Founder, Pretty Well Beauty

Pop-ups are much more economical and sustainable for a new brand like mine because I can’t afford the overhead and expense of a brick-and-mortar at this stage, so this allows me to have a physical presence without the cost of a permanent space.

I have done about five or six pop-up events since I launched in January 2019. For me, it was well worth the investment because the only real investment has been my time. I have been fortunate to be able to partner with brands and venues like the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg and Jenni Kayne in Tribeca, for example, and they hosted me for free. They did this because my brand aligned with theirs, so it just made sense. It was mutually beneficial for me to be there and bring people in from my extensive network.  

The event I did at the Wythe Hotel was easily the biggest one I’ve done because it was more than just a traditional pop-up. It was a fully immersive experience that included a panel that I hosted/moderated. We had healthy snacks and drinks, nontoxic beauty services and the pop-up featured brands I personally curated. This really allowed people to get to know me much more intimately as well as the brands I carry. It was a huge success with over 300 RSVPs and over 100 people who attended. 

When I do pop-ups, yes, the goal is always to sell product, but that just isn’t always the case. However, I look at these events as an opportunity to build brand awareness and to make real life connections with people who are interested in clean beauty and wellness. 

Evelyn Subramaniam Founder, Bija Essence

I participated in a pop-up on Lexington Avenue in New York City. I always tell myself, “Don't have expectations. Just meet new customers. Connect with them, learn from them and have them learn something from you.” I believe that, if they buy the product it's because they believe in it, whether it's the quality, implied benefits, story, etc. Sales are not pushed, but marketing opportunities are respected. I love connecting and meeting people, so I found that pop-ups work great for me.

Tara Mattera VP of Product Development and Marketing, Body Barrier

We launched Body Barrier at Expo West this past March in Anaheim. To keep the brand momentum going, we partnered with Westfield malls to participate in a short-term pop-up for their Beauty & Balance event a few weeks later at the World Trade Center Oculus location in New York City. The pop-up was a four-day event on the main floor where the mall hosted morning yoga sessions, dance classes and other wellness initiatives. 

Instead of a physical store, we rented a hige-end kiosk, what they refer to as Retail Merchandising Unit or RMU. This was a huge plus because we didn’t have to invest in temporary store fixtures. The unit was lit and came with lockable storage beneath as well. So, our only costs outside of the lease were staffing, and some signage and props. 

Even though this was a short-term pop-up, we wanted the RMU to really pop. We invested in creating large scale acrylic props (three-foot cactus, cluster of water drops) to really draw attention.

We didn’t go into the pop-up just to make sales. Rather, we saw this as an opportunity to get great brand exposure in the very important NYC market and really see how people interacted with our products. Sure, you can do a focus group, but people’s reaction to your products in a live environment is so much more valuable.

Even though our body cleansers are created to be more of a functional experience, rather than a pure fragrance story, we know that scents sell. The feedback we got on the product aromas was truly amazing. It lead us to create written descriptions to use for e-commerce product detail pages. The other real benefit to this location was that it was in a mall, not a standalone store. So, we didn’t have to drive traffic on our own. 

If you enter into any pop-up situation, it is important to set your metrics of success beforehand and be realistic as it really is a lot of  work.

Rochelle Jacobs Managing Director, Naturally Serious

Although I haven’t participated in a pop-up, I have been involved in many co-branded moments such as destination dinners with influencers to speak to them about Naturally Serious, and brand takeovers with wellness/beauty brands. I would say it is definitely worth the investment because you get to be a part of so many different initiatives, get in front of the right consumer to promote brand awareness and hear their feedback directly, and grow the buzz through these cross-promotional moments.

Amber Fawson Co-Founder, Saalt

We haven't participated in a conventional pop-up yet, though we've certainly entertained the idea. Something similar that we have done is offered product at an activation for Earth Day. Several of our team members convened with a few of our fans on Venice Beach and installed a waste awareness installation in the sand. We also hired a local artist to paint a giant, four-foot menstrual cup on a cement cone at the Venice Beach walls there in the middle of everything. 

For anyone willing to make a permanent switch from pads or tampons to a cup in honor of Earth Day, we offered to trade one tampon or pad for one Saalt cup. We found that interacting in person with anyone who was passing by like you would with a traditional pop-up was invaluable and totally invigorating. Face-to-face conversations have nuances that are different from social media conversations and have value and energy in their own way. We absolutely will look at participating in pop-ups in the future.

Jamie Steenbakkers Co-Founder and COO, Busy Beauty

I've found pop-ups to be worth the investment because it's given me the unique opportunity to talk directly to our customers, hear their feedback (both good and bad) and continue to learn about our demographic. It also gives customers the opportunity to get to know the team behind Busy Beauty, which is so valuable.

Shayda Torabi Co-Founder, RESTART CBD

We participate in pop-up's pretty frequently actually. We find it's a good way to get our brand in front of fresh faces, as well as show our brand is a pillar in the local community by collating with like-minded brands to cross promote our brands.

Obviously some are going to be more worthwhile than others, so doing research on what to expect beforehand will go a long way day of the event. We're constantly learning from each experience, so little things like making a google doc form to capture emails versus a pen and paper can help speed up the experience as pop up's tend to be pretty fast-paced.

Another point that I've found to be super helpful is if you can either 1. Attend a similar style pop up event prior, or 2. Ask people who have already participated in past pop-up's of their experience. It can help level set what to expect which can help improve the quality of the event altogether.

Rozy Kriston Founder, AMPERSAND

We have not yet participated in a pop-up, but we have recently participated at the Indie Beauty Expo. It was a great experience and we learned a lot from being face-to-face with customers and others in the industry. Having that experience is hard to come by when your business is solely e-commerce, so we certainly felt it was worth the investment.

We are also participating in a pop-up this summer with the Market @ Macy’s. I think it will prove to be a worthwhile investment as well. When a big-brand store gives smaller brands an opportunity to be a part of their in-store experience, it’s a win-win for all parties involved. The store, the customer and the brand all can benefit from the experience!

CHRISTINAH NICOLAISEN Co-Founder, Eleni & Chris

We have attended several pop up events and overall find that it is worth the investment. We try to look at every case individually, some are great for brand building whereas others are more commercial.

What we have learned is that planning is essential, start early seeding in social media, always include an interesting demo product for people to try and get the conversation going and have great offers with various price points that make you stand out.

We also find that attending pop ups is very insightful for us as a brand, as you get to speak to your customers directly and they give you honest feedback on what you are doing well and how you can improve.

Aditi M Gaur Founder, Kanai

We look forward to pop-ups as it helps us interact and engage with the customer directly, giving us many insights that can be applied towards the growth of the business.

We have done pop-ups in different cities in India and each time we’ve come away with knowledge that has helped us tailor our solutions for that region. In Mumbai, where we are based, we encounter customers who lean towards a particular product while in Bengaluru (South India) they might lean more towards another product as their primary concern may be with, say, moisturizing, on account of the weather being very dry.

We also notice that consumer questions vary in each city. Some consumers are more interested in ingredient details while in another city they just want something "safe" and are willing to take your word for it.

All in all, pop-ups are a great way to talk about who you are and what you’re offering to the customer. In the cosmetics business a touch and feel experience goes a long way in recruiting a customer and meeting the founder and interacting with them is often an experience to remember if you can articulate your vision and passion for the brand effectively. I don’t think advertisements can do that as well as direct interaction with the brand or its founder.

Erika Wasser Founder and CEO, Glam+Go

We've done a handful of pop-ups. For us, they don't make sense as we’re able to provide a higher quality service within our own built-out spaces. Also, a customer is only likely to return or become a customer if one of our physical locations is convenient to them.

After blowing nearly all the fuses in a full-floor New York City ad agency office, we really think long and hard before we'll go somewhere offsite. We ask ourselves: can we provide an experience we want someone to want to have again? Or does this location make physical sense as a feeder to our actual stores? In general, pop ups for service-based brands are hard. I have seen them be super successful for product/retail based brands because the core product is relatively the same and not dependent on a store.

Andrea Lisbona Founder and CEO, Touchland

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is there are many kinds of pop-ups and not all work for every brand. I recommend making sure you really understand your product, industry and target audience to ensure that a particular pop-up is a good alignment for your brand. Pop-ups can be a great opportunity to network with other like-minded brands.

Jeannie Jarnot Founder, Beauty Heroes

We have participated in a few pop-ups, and they have been good - not great. Typically, we aren’t the ones marketing the event, although we do support the marketing, the success of the event is largely out of our control.

It’s always a gamble participating in a pop-up, so I recommend when considering, ask a lot of questions before committing. We’ve learned to bring a diverse product selection and focus on products that smell good, feel good and sell themselves.

Paula Pulvino Founder, Villa of the Mysteries Perfume

Once we started selling, we began participating in a number of pop-ups as a way to gather market research. I’ve found that customers who frequent pop-ups will give you the unvarnished truth about a product, so it was a good way to see if the products would appeal to our target demographic, if the price points were sustainable in the market, etc.

Once we were in boutiques and had a social media presence, we stopped doing pop-ups as they weren’t worth it from a revenue standpoint, once we factored in all of the hours of preparation for the events. I think that has to do with the fact that some people are reluctant to purchase fragrance after trying it once. I rarely make impulse fragrance purchases myself, so I understand that point of view.

So now we do pop-ups only when we’re honing the formula for a new fragrance, in order to get real-time feedback from our target market. We’ll take the new fragrance to the market and let consumers try it to see what they think.

Using that metric, pop-ups have been worth the investment for us. It’s been an easy, cost-effective way to conduct market research on our fragrances and get immediate feedback, which is invaluable.

JENNIE FRESA Founder and Owner, Copal Clean Beauty

We haven’t done a pop-up before, however, we have had other merchants do pop-ups at our brick and mortar location in Madison, CT.  It was insightful to explore the option since we would like to participate in our own pop-up locations in 2020.

We quickly learned that if you partner with a brand that targets the same ICA (Ideal Client Avatar), then you can bring more sales through the door to clients who are specifically looking for what you have to offer, but just haven’t found you yet. The partnership builds on each other’s “lists” and benefits the consumer when the businesses compliment one another.

Sarah Marcus Founder, Lines of Elan

We've done many pop-ups over the years, and choose to treat them as both an awareness driver and a sales opportunity for the brand.

If you select pop-ups strategically to ensure they align in appeal and potential demographic with your target market, you get so much more out of them.

Always ask the organizer questions to ensure a good fit! We learned early on that doing every pop-up, regardless of who they attract, or where they are, and hoping to make your money back, or generate a profit, is a lost cause.

If you have a question you’d like Beauty Independent to ask beauty entrepreneurs, please send it to editor@beautyindependent.com.