When Victor Umeh began selling T-shirts from his car while a student at the University of Arizona in 2011, the undergrad didn't know a pop-up from a pop-top.
But with little money or backing for his idea for a line of streetwear fashion, Umeh eventually embraced the budget-friendly advantages of hawking his BOSHOK Clothing at pop-up stores and events.
“I had a concept for doing a cultural-empowerment brand, with a lot of culturally inspired designs,” said Umeh, whose BOSHOK brand stands for "blood of slaves, hearts of kings." BOSHOK started out with three designs and the shirts were sold by hand on or near the Tucson campus.
Until he moved to Washington, D.C., for a brief period after college, the former engineering major says he hadn't considered pop-ups – where retailers rent out a temporary space to sell their goods, often during the holidays. But pop-up stores' low overhead was compelling: Set up shop for just a day or two and then leave. No rent, no electric bill, and few worries.
“We got into the retail market for a while, but it wasn’t really for us,” Umeh said. "I kind of feel that retail is archaic. You see a lot of these big retail shops really struggling.”
His experience with pop-ups in Washington inspired Umeh to try them out in other markets like Phoenix, Tucson, Los Angeles and Toronto. But setting up a pop-up shop in Phoenix presents some unique challenges, he says.
“It’s a lot easier on the East Coast because there’s so much foot traffic,” observed Umeh. “When you're in a market like Arizona, everywhere people go, they drive. It’s not like New York City, where it doesn’t matter where you set up. You’re going to get foot traffic because people are always walking.”
BOSHOK recently held its first pop-up in Toronto, which produced the kind of sales that required four to five years to achieve in Phoenix. Umeh says he now realizes that pop-up shops work best in densely populated cities with plenty of pedestrians. He declined to give out specific sales numbers.
In cities like Phoenix, Umeh relies on an email list with 2,500 addresses, plus Instagram and Facebook to promote his pop-ups. Some BOSHOK pop-ups are hosted at compatible retail stores, while others are held in relatively empty spaces, such as photo studios. DJs, live performances, food, raffles and giveaways add to the festive atmosphere.
“It’s hard for the traditional retailers to do that,” said Umeh. “It’s about providing another aspect to keep people engaged. Entertainment gives them something to do and maybe they stay longer. Maybe they buy more.”
One of the upsides of pop-ups in the Phoenix area, Umeh says, is that it’s much less competitive than other markets and pop-ups remain unique here. The downside is how spread out the Valley is. Even with social media, the region's sprawling geography makes attracting customers difficult. His last pop-up here was in May in Tempe.
“Somebody who is familiar with our brand might live in Glendale,” noted Umeh, “but if we have a pop-up shop in Tempe, they might decide it’s too far to drive.”
And not all areas of the Valley are the right markets for BOSHOK's streetwear brand.
“Scottsdale isn’t really our market. They’re more upscale. We’re urban, so we thrive in more of a downtown market, but the downtown market in Phoenix isn’t really conducive to us either because it’s so business-oriented," he said. "Midtown is more of an area where we can thrive.”
Live music and social media bring more shoppers
Johnny Cupcakes founder Johnny Earle also started selling T-shirts out of the trunk of his car. While on tour with his band On Broken Wings, he continued selling his T-shirts out of an old suitcase. Then he moved onto one-day, pop-up shops in every major city, launching his now-famous T-shirts.
Earle relies on a team of independent sales reps called cake dealers. Mariah Romero is the company's cake dealer in Arizona. The Arizona State University senior recently hosted a pop-up shop on an acre of land in Mesa, where musicians came together and played throughout the night while patrons shopped for Johnny Cupcakes merchandise.
Romero says the company wants her to do a minimum of three pop-up events per month, with at least $1,000 in sales at each. The company also creates sales goals and competitions to incentivize its cake dealers. The work is solely commission-based; she is compensated with 30 percent of her sales.
So, Romero aims to turn her pop-ups into happenings and to keep her guests entertained. She hires DJs to make the events exciting, while also holding raffles and other promotions to keep her followers engaged. Pop-up sites range from hipster venues in urban areas such as downtown Phoenix to ice cream and dessert shops where parents and children go.
“That way they don’t just buy stuff and leave," she said. "We like to have people interact with each other. There’s a Facebook page where the fans all interact with the Johnny Cupcakes merchandise and they meet each other at the pop-ups.”
She also uses Eventbrite and Instagram to reach out to Johnny Cupcakes fans across Arizona. “You have to network to gain your clientele in a short time period,” she says. “If there’s a pop-up a month from now, you have to promote and get the word out or you’re not going to perform well in terms of sales. You also want to build friendly relationships with the people that go to these pop-ups. That way they will continue to show up.”
But the young entrepreneur sees advantages to doing pop-ups, versus traditional retail sales. In her view, it’s all about connecting, networking and relationship building. "Having a good time is what really matters.”