Christie Griffiths starts her day by checking her phone. And then she checks it again. While her behavior might not sound that different from any other millennial, she is actually working—obsessively monitoring the social media accounts associated with her store, Brightside Boutique.
“I’m on my phone constantly; it just never ends,” says Griffiths, who opened her store in 2011. “I’m always apologizing to everyone I know, but if you want to have a successful business you have to do it.”
In the world of retail, gone are the days of just sitting behind a cash register and throwing together a window display. Owning and operating a store now demands that you are in constant contact with your customers, which means meeting them exactly where they are physically and digitally. Griffiths—who opened her third Brightside in Hampden in March—has mastered the delicate balance of reaching a wide swath of customers while also keeping her service very personalized.
“It’s important to know your customer,” Griffiths says. “I know it sounds weird but I know how my shopper talks, I know how she thinks, I know where she is going this weekend, and so does my staff.”
Griffiths’ strategy? She treats Brightside more like a pop-up shop than a brick-and-mortar store. On top of her permanent locations in Federal Hill, Fells Point, and Hampden, she has Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat accounts, a website, a strong presence at local events such as festivals and outdoor markets, and ongoing collaborations with local style bloggers. Recently, she launched her own private label brand. Having three retail stores in the Baltimore area is basically unheard of, but Brightside’s formula is clearly working.
“I think the change in retail is affecting everyone,” explains Griffiths. “You really have to be connected.” Her suggestions for budding boutique owners? “Look at stores and brands that you idolize. Look at their social media and web presences. Take notes to get inspired and do it your own way.”
The needs of the modern consumer have become more complicated over time. People want to know more about the products they are buying, they want to know who made it and how, but most of all they want to feel good about their purchases. Consumers today are exposed to so much noise that it takes a multitude of methods to make a shopping experience seem meaningful. This idea—of keeping inventory fresh, the experience interactive, and the marketing message targeted—was pioneered by pop-up shops and is now being applied to brick-and-mortar stores. Though pop-up shops are certainly not a new concept, the model can serve as a good trial run for future stores.
Consumers today are exposed to so much noise that it takes a multitude of methods to make a shopping experience seem meaningful.
“With a pop-up shop, you have low investment,” says Holly Lentz-Schiller, assistant professor in the fashion merchandising department at Stevenson University. “You can be very nimble and very quick to move and make changes to your business. There is not the overhead and the commitments so you are able to go where your consumers physically are.”
Having a temporary place to sell your goods—whether it is a one-time, monthly, or bi-monthly event—feels safer to those just starting their businesses, giving them a chance to test out ideas while beginning to understand the target market.
Vanessa Milio started Taken, a pop-up shop exclusively featuring Maryland-based items, in 2015 because she loved the concept and wanted to showcase items people may have never found on their own. “I just really felt strongly about the idea of bringing the product to the people,” says Milio. “I love the idea of the mobility—even if I am representing the same 35 artists, we are in 14 different locations.” Milio has set up her shop everywhere from a brewery in Laurel, to a coffeehouse in Hamilton, to the nonprofit Second Chance. “It is always a different atmosphere and presentation,” she explains.
Amy Fresty and Ellen Lunay, the founders of Here. a pop-up shop, took a Social Media 101 class when they first started out in 2013. “E-commerce and social media play a large part in our business,” says Lunay. “I have seen a number of shops, both small and large, close in part because they weren’t consistent on social media.” Fresty and Lunay take a very personal approach to Here.’s social media accounts, posting so many pictures and videos from their own lives that they’re often recognized as the “Here. girls” around town. The pair, who host their pop-up in Annapolis monthly, also sell a select amount of their own private label items that they make in conjunction with vendors and artists. They have also hosted seasonal online pop-up shops, which are time sensitive sales to create demand on their website.
Laura Layton, owner of mobile boutique Tin Lizzy, agrees that a store’s social media presence must work in conjunction with its “real world” existence. “I think it is super important to be online and have that presence,” says Layton. “The business model is so fleeting—at one place one day and somewhere totally different the next. I see so many sales in my online shop the day after a big event. And I know exactly who the customer is! I can remember that woman looking at a necklace she left without and then see her place the order the next day.”
Of course, pop-up shops are inherently flexible, able to react in real time to their customers’ tastes and needs. But lately, brick-and-mortar retailers seem to be catching on, applying pop-up techniques to their marketing. “The real trend in retail is omni-channel retailing,” explains Lentz-Schiller. “Bringing all of the pieces of retailing together—the e-commerce, the brick and mortar, catalogs, social media—to put out a consistent message.”
“I don’t see brick and mortar ever being completely gone, but they will need to reimagine what they are used to and be willing to change and evolve in order to survive.”
Because the daily media consumption of the average consumer has increased, retailers need to be social media experts, finding potential customers on places such as Instagram, Pinterest, and crafty e-commerce site Etsy. The ultimate goal is to create the kinds of relationships in which clients feel so comfortable online that they want to visit the store in person. “I don’t see brick and mortar ever being completely gone,” says Lentz-Schiller. “But they will need to reimagine what they are used to and be willing to change and evolve in order to survive.”
Brightside has found inspiration in national companies—Free People, for example—that are also doing things to keep their brand relevant to their consumers. Not only does Free People have an official Instagram account filled with dreamy, ethereal photos that totally encapsulate the brand’s overall feel, they have local Instagram accounts in different parts of the country. They use these accounts to speak to their consumers directly in their areas, with pictures of weather appropriate merchandise and posts about news and events in their town.
“Something I’ve really tried to do with Brightside is to be very [Baltimore] branded,” Griffiths says. “If you visit the page of a Free People store in Texas it’s full of desert and cacti, but if you look at California it’s all beaches and palm trees. They are so intentional with whom they are targeting.”
Another way retailers are promoting their brands is through collaboration. For instance, Brightside teams up with local bloggers and people who have prolific social media followings, helping to expand the brand’s reach and have it associated with these trusted tastemakers. Other forms of collaboration are found through markets and craft fairs and even in other stores throughout the city.
And for those pop-up retailers who want the stability of a permanent store but can’t afford it? Collaboration is once again key. Erica Bentley of Keepers Vintage in Mt. Vernon moved her store into a space shared with maker Letta Moore of Knits, Soy, & Metal last fall. “It’s very cliche, but there is strength in numbers,” Bentley says. “The idea of sharing a similar work ethic, expanding your customer base, and having someone to bounce ideas off of is helpful.”
The two businesses officially converged into a brick and mortar shop on Read Street last November after many years of doing pop-ups. “The limited amount of time you are given for pop-up shops can be a disadvantage,” explains Moore. “Once that opportunity is gone, there isn’t a physical place for customers to get your products unless you have an online presence. Being in a brick and mortar, anyone can walk by at any time and come in to make a purchase.”
Both brands have tailored their business models to include in-store events and workshops to make shopping with them more of an experience. Says Bentley, “We both did a lot of popping up in the past, but the difference for me is really comparable to going on vacation. The fun, excitement, and headache of traveling versus actually getting home. This space is like being home.”