As grocers look to step up product discovery and make their aisles of packaged goods less drab, a pop-up retailer is showcasing a few ways to shake up the grocery shopping experience.
Pop Up Grocer aims to make its temporary locations — and soon-to-open permanent store in New York City — destinations for product discovery of dry and refrigerated packaged foods in tiny storefronts featuring vibrant colors, selfie mirrors and disco ball happy hours.
“Grocery shopping but make it…not ugly,” Pop Up Grocer’s first TikTok video states, in a challenge to traditional grocers. The video includes a slideshow of nondescript grocery aisles with bright lights and high shelves before cutting to Pop Up Grocer’s white and red striped awning and colorful brand packaging on its shelves.
Since its founding in 2019, Pop Up Grocer has had eight activations in several cities across the U.S., including New York City, Miami, Chicago and Venice Beach, California. Most recently, it set up shop from May 6 to June 5 in the trendy NoMa neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Each pop-up location has between 120-150 brands, which are largely food and beverage but also include pet, body care and sometimes home care in spaces that are roughly 1,000 square feet.
Pop Up Grocer founder and CEO Emily Schildt, a former brand publicist, has seen firsthand not only the innovation happening in the food space but also how food influencers and brands can work together to create buzz.
“In the last few years [we] have positioned ourselves as an influencer retailer,” she said in an interview.
Hope and Sesame’s sesame milk. Alcohol-free functional spirits made by bonbuz. Victory Dance Foods’ line of “juiced granola” made with whole raw fresh fruits and vegetables.
These are just some of the items among the 400 products from 120 brands at the location that was open in Washington, D.C.
Shoppers at Pop Up Grocer locations can expect to find better-for-you products and brands with founders who are women, people of color or part of the LGBTQ+ community. That’s intentional, Schildt said, and stems from Pop Up Grocer’s sourcing criteria that seeks out brands that are interesting, focus on responsible sourcing and have “attractive” packaging.
At the NoMa store, about 54% of the brands were women-owned, 25% were BIPOC- and queer-owned and 8% were local, Schildt told local news site DCist.
“We’re really creativity-first and health as a by-product of that,” Schildt said, noting that Pop Up Grocer is focused on inclusivity and places an “emphasis on underrepresented and under-resourced founders.”
When it comes to finding brands, Pop Up Grocer does research online, scours Instagram and taps into its network of current and former brands, investors and other stakeholders for referrals, Schildt said, noting that “a lot” of brands are reaching out to Pop Up Grocer as it becomes more well known.
A majority of brands Pop Up Grocer works with are online-only. Some have already made it onto the shelves of major retailers — Hope and Sesame, for example, has placement with Sprouts Farmers Market — and are leveraging Pop Up Grocer to enter new markets. A minority are distributed nationally, Schildt said.
By following a 30-day retail model, Pop Up Grocer has avoided the supply chain issues plaguing the grocery industry. “Our inventory needs are pretty limited,” Schildt said.
Along with providing brands with long-sought shelf space, Pop Up Grocer is also helping them grow and refine their business. The Pop Up Grocer Fund gives 5% of in-store sales from each pop-up location to an emerging CPG brand. Earlier this month, Pop Up Grocer sent an email to its newsletter subscribers on behalf of a brand seeking feedback on refreshed packaging options.
Assortment varies from location to location, and best sellers tend to vary by market, like spicy products in Miami and popcorn in Washington, D.C., Schildt said.
Pop Up Grocer deliberately includes more recognizable brands such as cereal brand Magic Spoon or snack maker LesserEvil to help boost trust among shoppers in its sourcing credibility.
Schildt described Pop Up Grocer’s typical customers as early adopters: “[They’re] people who are very conscious about the things they put in and on their body. They’re looking for the newest items. They probably consider themselves informers within their networks as to what products people should be looking for.”
She continued: “Our stamp of approval — the fact that we have these guiding criteria [for sourcing] — makes their jobs somewhat easier, too, because, as we all know, there’s so many products. Consumers and buyers [for retailers] alike are looking for some sort of filter to help them make good choices.”
Taking a creative approach to retail
At 6 p.m. each day, the lights went down and the samples came out for Disco Happy Hour at the location in Washington, D.C. At one happy hour, shoppers got to sip Swoon's Zero Sugar Peach Iced Tea samples while browsing the store as purple dots of light sparkled around the products.
Pop Up Grocer also has placed selfie mirrors in its locations to up the Instagram-worthiness of the experience and has enticed customers to make multiple visits with an in-store game called PUGko, which customers can play daily to try to win prizes.
Along with Disco Happy Hour, Pop Up Grocer has held events like cocktail mixers after its normal operating hours. To celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May, it held an event for shoppers to try out “products with authentic flavors” from Asian-owned brands, including Phil’s Finest, Pan’s Mushroom Jerky and Sanzo.
For people who weren’t able to make the events or want to relive the experiences, Pop Up Grocer’s TikTok account chronicles the fun.
Even without the events and games, Pop Up Grocer leans into creating an Instagram-worthy trip. Like its prior locations, the Washington store was brimming with eye-catching food packaging, colorful shelving and shopping baskets, and neon signs. The pop-up in Venice Beach, California, in early 2020 had a living room and lounge area.
Customers at the NoMa store could shop shelves labeled breakfast + bars, puff, crunch, sweets + treats, boosters + blends, and bites + chews.
“I think when people are just having fun, they might be a bit more open-minded to try something new,” Schildt said.
Pop Up Grocer has another pop-up planned for the fall in a to-be-announced location and is planning to open a permanent store in Manhattan. Schildt previously told Thrillist that the permanent location will have room for talks, tastings, demos and a cafe.
“It’ll just be a long-standing, reliable destination for New Yorkers and tourists to visit that will still constantly be rotating our inventory and introducing new brands,” she said.
As grocers look to up the ante on their in-store experience, some have tested offerings focused on making shopping more fun with things such as game rooms and augmented reality. Others, like Hy-Vee, are leaning into the convenience of bundling their grocery assortment with non-food items and services like exercise equipment and nail salons.
To promote product discovery, many are leveraging shelf tags and icons to call out specific attributes to customers, while online, personalization and shoppable content linked with recipes are connecting brands to shoppers. Late last year, Whole Foods Market sold for a limited time a $30 “discovery box” with items reflecting each of its 10 anticipated trends for 2022.
Grocers take note, though: Creative merchandising is just one part of the product discovery equation. Schildt said shoppers may need consumer education on what products are and how to use them, like adaptogens and nootropics, in order to fully engage with them.
“[We had] a sample of a nut butter spread and people asked how to use it. … Even early adopters will come up to the register and look at me and just stare and not understand what it is that they’re purchasing,” Schildt noted.
It all ties back to Pop Up Grocer’s mission: “Grocery shopping, but make it fun.”