The Genteel
November 18, 2017
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Storefront helps small businesses to organise pop-up shops in temporarily vacant spaces. Source: thestorefront.com.

Tricia Jang and Crystal Nguyen started making candles by hand for fun about three years ago. Little did they know at the time that their crafty hobby would morph into a business. However, as word spread about their wood-wick soy candles, that is exactly what happened. The former roommates ended up launching their business type.lites online in June 2010.

type.lites homemade wood-wick soy candles
type.lites homemade wood-wick soy candles.
Source: typelites.com

With full-time jobs as a graphic designer and personal stylist respectively, Jang and Nguyen make, market and sell their candles in their free time. They call it their "labour of love", so were happy to start out online.

However, in December 2012, they were approached with the opportunity to take type.lites offline and join a collaborative pop-up shop organised by event and retail venue Firehouse 8 in San Francisco, where they are based. In the last year, they have brought their products to other pop-ups, trade shows and craft fairs and have found that a physical presence is essential for the success of their small business.

"I think the main thing for us has been the exposure and meeting people that we probably ordinarily would not meet," Nguyen explains to The Genteel. "We have met people who make all types of amazing goods, so we are seeing what they are doing and how people are reacting to their businesses and then also seeing how we can grow our business within an artist community, in a way."

Jang agrees. "It is such a welcoming community," she says of San Francisco's artists and makers. "People feel comfortable sharing their stories and what they have learned in their business. Crystal and I, being creative minds, we definitely play off of that. We absorb all of that creative energy."

Still, online seems to be the place to be, with consumers increasingly turning to the Internet to do their shopping. According to the British Retail Consortium's report earlier this month, online purchases increased by more than 19 percent in the UK in 2013 compared to the previous year.

Meanwhile, Siddharth Cavale writes in a Reuters article from December 2013 that estimates show online retail in the US was up 10 percent during the holiday shopping period of November 2 to December 23 - a fact that many say played a big part in the capacity of delivery service UPS being exceeded, and the consequential late deliveries and huge backlash at Christmas.

Ten years ago everyone was like, 'How do I bring my offline store online?' and now we are seeing the exact opposite of that.

Despite these numbers, Jang and Nguyen believe there is still something to be said for bricks-and-mortar retail, as well as having face time with consumers, even if it is in temporary pop-up form. Plus, given that their product is very sensory - their candles are fragrant with scents such as Lemon Lavender and Cedar Sage - they find most of their purchases, both first-time and repeat customers, occur in person.

"We try to do a good job of adding the notes in the description, but of course everybody can smell things differently," Nyugen explains, adding that people's interpretations of scents are much like the way colours appear on different computer screens.

"It is always a constant battle for us, unless, you know, Google does develop 'Google Nose' like they said," she adds with a laugh.

The pair also uses the offline market to get ideas for and test out new fragrances - conversations with male consumers led to the development of Cedar Sage. They also credit it with the expansion of their wholesale business, as other retailers have been able to discover them in person.

Additionally, in-person events are a good way to stand out from the online crowd, so to speak. Jang explains that it can be difficult to create brand awareness when existing only on the Internet, as digital marketplaces and platforms such as Etsy can be "overwhelming" and "oversaturated". For example, a search for "candles" on Etsy brings up more than 60,000 results, but offline markets and pop-ups feature a more limited number of stalls or brands for shoppers to browse.

Jang and Nguyen are not the only ones who see value in the bricks-and-mortar, regardless of the trend toward online shopping. Men's custom clothing company Indochino first launched online in 2007. Still, they too turned to the meet-the-maker retail experience by way of the pop-up shop in 2011. Co-founder Kyle Vucko says he and business partner Heikal Gani "love" e-commerce, but found that offline experiences also contribute a great deal to their end goal of "helping guys get dressed and doing it in the best way possible."

Their pop-up - which is called the Traveling Tailor - will set up shop more than 20 times this year across the US and Canada, allowing the brand to better connect with its customers, Vucko explains to The Genteel. Men usually visit the pop-up shop by appointment - although walk-ins also are welcome - and are led through the process of ordering their custom-made garments.

An Indochino pop-up shop
An Indochino pop-up shop. Source: Indochino.com.

While Vucko says Indochino customers are generally comfortable ordering online thanks to their Fit Promise guarantee, he explains that the Traveling Tailor helps them get more excited about the brand because their connection to it is strengthened by meeting face-to-face with a representative. The experience also offers men an opportunity to learn about fashion and ask questions in person, while the company benefits from local media exposure that would be unlikely without such a physical presence.

Like type.lites, Indochino has organised some of its bricks-and-mortar pop-ups through one-year-old online platform Storefront, which connects makers, designers and other businesses with spaces in San Francisco and New York City - though the service has plans to expand to other cities too. The aim is to utilise empty spaces while allowing creative entrepreneurs "to be able to do retail like all the big brands do, and do it in a more affordable, accessible way," according to co-founder Tristan Pollock.

He adds that he and business partner Erik Eliason developed Storefront with the idea that shopping is more than just a transaction, especially as support for meet-the-maker and local retail experiences grows.

"Ten years ago everyone was like, 'How do I bring my offline store online?' and now we are seeing the exact opposite of that," Pollock explains to The Genteel. "It is more focused. You have that local impact, people get to see and feel and touch, and then they also get an intimate experience that you are not going to get online."

Jang and Nyugen agree. Although they have no plans to open a permanent bricks-and-mortar store anytime in the near future, popping up at events throughout the year is very much a part of their business plan. "We love getting out there and meeting the people that are buying our products […] and hearing what they have to say - what they like and don’t like," Jang comments. "That, for us, is invaluable."

Related: The Rise of the Pop-Up Shop

Related: Retail in Motion

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