Why shoe brand Vivaia is testing out pop-ups

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After several years of rapid growth, U.K.-based online shoe brand Vivaia is turning to pop-ups to help grow its footprint.

Over the past year, Vivaia has tested out physical retail in three countries. In the spring, it opened shops-within-shops in five Japanese department stores: Isetan, JR Takashimaya, Sogo, Matsuya Ginza and Keio. In September, it launched an eight-month pop-up in Singapore. In October, it opened its first pop-up in the United States in New York City. And in November, it opened its second U.S. pop-up in one of its most popular cities, Los Angeles. While the New York pop-up has since ended, the Los Angeles pop-up carries on until Dec. 31.

Initially, Vivaia was “very single-minded” in focusing on its online business, the brand’s general manager Howard Herman told Modern Retail. It sells in 61 countries and regions via its website and has amassed more than 1 million customers to date, according to the company. In addition to its DTC site, the company sells on Amazon and recently ventured into wholesale with Nordstrom. Overall, Vivaia’s business has more than doubled over the past year, inspiring its executives to try selling items in physical retail. Now that it’s opened temporary locations, Vivaia is setting its sights on permanent stores in Japan and Singapore and in U.S. states such as New York, California, Florida, Texas and Washington over the next several years.

Vivaia launched in 2020 as a sustainable shoe brand that makes its products out of recycled plastic water bottles. Its shoes — which include over-the-knee boots and flats — sell for $97 to $189 on its website, although the brand now also sells apparel, bags, socks and insoles. Vivaia has recycled more than 16 million water bottles to make its products, and it’s gained a following among celebrities including Julia Roberts, Selena Gomez and Katie Holmes.

One of Vivaia’s main goals with doing pop-ups, Herman said, “was to see if all of the advertising that we do in our online business would translate well to customers in a retail setting.” Vivaia declined to share sales numbers, but said that customers at the New York pop-up purchased two pairs of shoes, on average, and that some 50 people lined up daily outside of the street entrance. “I wish we could have extended it. That’s how good the business [in New York] was,” Herman said. The pop-ups in Japan, he said, were “basically record-breaking” for the department stores. “They had to put on more and more staff to deal with the crowds,” he added.

Vivaia’s New York and Los Angeles pop-ups had a similar product selection but a different look and feel. While the New York pop-up was in a street-facing building, the Los Angeles pop-up is in a shopping mall. “We had fans showing up in New York,” Herman said. “But in L.A., we had foot traffic walking by that really was not familiar with the business.” The New York pop-up was also much bigger, at 2,000 square feet, compared to 500 square feet in Los Angeles.

In addition, the New York pop-up held an influencer event the night before launch, while the L.A. pop-up did not. Herman estimated that some 50 influencers came to the New York event. Vivaia typically works with 100 influencers a month and invited influencers with sizable followings to the New York party. In Los Angeles, Herman said, “we’ve been inviting them in small batches, typically in the morning or midday.” “That way, we can focus on one or two in the store at a time,” he added. “It’s been a bit of a different approach, but they both work well.”

Both locations offered promotions to try and bring shoppers in the door. The New York pop-up held one deal per week. The first was “buy two pairs and get a free storage bag,” while the second was “buy two pairs and get a free cleaning kit.” The Los Angeles pop-up, however, kicked off during Cyber Weekend, motivating Vivaia to hold larger promotions, including “buy two pairs of shoes and get 20% off, buy three pairs of shoes and get 25% off and buy four pairs of shoes and get 30% off.” The Los Angeles pop-up also gave a $15 discount to anyone who signed up for Vivaia’s membership program at the front door.

More brands are relying on pop-ups to test out new markets before committing to a short-term or long-term lease. Pop-ups can also last anywhere from a few days to multiple months, granting the brands more flexibility around finances. “It’s a great way for them to get data and understand the validity of a location,” Melissa Gonzalez, CEO of The Lionesque Group and principal at MG2, told Modern Retail. “Is this the right square footage? Is this the right layout? Is this the right design? Is this the right operating strategy?”

While pop-ups are not new — they especially took off in the 2010s — brands are taking more of an interest in the format today considering the pandemic, Gonzalez said. “While people were experimenting with a lot of things pre-Covid, like smaller footprints, shoppable showrooms, things like that, there’s more confidence that those environments can be successful because we as consumers evolved,” she said. “[There is] an openness and aptitude to drop ship and order ahead and click to buy and all these other things.”

Fashion brands, especially, are opening more pop-ups to appeal to shoppers clamoring to try on clothes in person, as well as touch and feel various fabrics and materials. The Gen Z-focused brand Cider, for instance, opened its first pop-up in the U.S. last month in New York City, while Aldo held its first consumer-led pop-up in September. Shein hosted more than 40 pop-ups globally last year, including about a dozen in the U.S.

Vivaia has largely decided to test out retail where it gets large volumes of e-commerce sales. Top areas for Vivaia include Dallas, Texas and Seattle, Washington, Herman said. “Then, around Virginia, Washington [DC], Maryland, we have a real strong pocket of activities. So these are the areas initially that we’re researching.”

Vivaia has more changes on the horizon, including wholesale expansion. As of this month, it sells products on Nordstrom’s website, and it will launch in Dillard’s in the spring of 2024. As far as stores go, it will open a permanent location in Singapore in April and wants to open its first permanent location in New York in March or April.

“We want to challenge ourselves to be aggressive and move quickly,” Herman said of the brand’s strategy. “But, following the old adage, location, location, location, we’re not going to rush into anything if we don’t feel the location’s absolutely correct.”

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