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It was just last month, as Emily Isenberg dashed around Boston in her Mini Cooper, juggling preparations for four pop-up shops set to open that night while getting city permits to debut another, when the realization struck: her nearly five-year-old business had taken off.
“It was nutty,” the former gallery director said. “But this is our new normal.”
Once a staple of seasonal markets and Halloween stores, pop-up shopping has grown up. The temporary outlets are now, in their own way, fixtures on the retail scene, with an ever-rising bar on how to create something that consumers will find fresh and exciting.
As pop-up shops have matured, Isenberg, 37, has become one of the region’s go-to figures, shepherding them into vacant storefronts and other moribund properties on behalf of developers, mall owners, and retailers.
That might mean a holiday gift pop-up shop with live reptiles and tarantulas in the Seaport or an art gallery in Allston selling artist-designed boom box radios for a flash sale. Sometimes the special sauce is a celebrity, like a pop-up for Kanye West in the Back Bay that drew crowds with little fanfare.
In a lackluster retail environment, where most merchandise can be found online and delivered to your doorstep, developers and retailers are hiring firms like Isenberg Projects to fill empty retail space or gauge a store’s popularity. And there is also FOMO, the fear of missing out, said Amy Koo, senior retail analyst for Kantar Retail, an advisory firm in Boston. If customers think they only have a short window to get something good, they’re more likely to buy.
“Let’s be honest, Internet shopping is a fact of life and has very drastically reorganized how shoppers think about shopping and what they want to do in person,” Koo said. “The pop-ups that are the most successful are the ones that really force a shopper to engage with a brand, not in the sense that it’s a chore, but in a way you want.”
Enter the Pop-up Queens, as Isenberg and her firm of five women sometimes call themselves.
They were behind Mom & Pop Up in the Fenway, a monthlong extravaganza that involved two dozen pop-up stores in an empty former frozen yogurt shop. Samuels & Associates, a major developer in Fenway, hired them three years ago to make the neighborhood cooler, and more like Kendall Square.
“Companies hire us to be the women behind the curtain,” Isenberg said.
At Mom & Pop Up, Union Square Donuts opened for just a few hours on a Saturday night. Other outlets making an appearance included Boutikey, a clothing shop founded by a local entrepreneur, and PolkaDogBakery, a chain that sells canine treats.
Boutikey even found a permanent retail space, although it eventually closed.
Only about 10 percent of pop-ups make the leap into a permanent store, Isenberg said. But more than 2,000 people visited Mom & Pop Up, a win for an evolving neighborhood that has since commanded higher rents and attracted major chains like Sephora and Target.
Debbie Hauss, editor of Retail TouchPoints, an industry publication, said while some view pop-ups as trendy, much like food trucks, they have staying power.
“I wouldn’t call this a fad, it’s definitely become another retail channel,” Hauss said. “Advancements in mobile point-of-sale have made it so much easier to open a pop-up. That’s one of the reasons it’s growing.”
Real estate dynamics have changed, too. Landlords are increasingly willing to take a short-term tenant instead of leaving a retail site vacant.
Isenberg said she had been working in galleries and restaurant hospitality when the Los Angeles-based clothing company XCVI heard about an art gallery pop-up she did for Children’s Hospital in 2011 and asked her to create five “rotating stores” for the brand. She said she lived in a Marriott Extended Stay for several months while getting a crash course in mall scouting and how to work with real estate developers.
While her firm has devised more than 100 pop-ups, including 26 last year, Isenberg is best known for her work on Newbury Street, where her team has installed a slew of pop-up stores for Jamestown Properties, many of them in a long-vacant space at Newbury and Dartmouth streets. She recruited Island Creek Oysters to sell oysters out of an abandoned sushi spot at 142 Newbury during the 2015 holiday season, even though the company owns two nearby restaurants.
Chris Sherman, president of Island Creek, said he agreed because it was a valuable marketing opportunity to sell to people visiting family in Boston and shopping on Newbury Street at a time when the company wants to increase its visibility. Roughly 10,000 shoppers entered the store, and about 22 percent bought oysters in a month.
“We made money but not a lot of money,” Sherman said. “Emily did a lot of work quantifying traffic and demographics and stuff like that. She was able to give us a really good analysis of our [return on investment] and what in fact we accomplished.”
It’s not all smooth sailing. Isenberg said she once did an event for Audi in a hotel only to find that the cars did not fit inside the building.
Sitting in her new office, in a renovated auto shop in Brookline, Isenberg said the key is finding ways to generate fresh ideas. She said she takes inspiration from art, places that draw crowds, and anywhere but Pinterest, a venue for advertising creative projects that exists only in the limited online world.
“Promotion 10 years ago was a website and a brochure,” she said. “That is not part of the future. People want to be part of an adventure.”