The power of pop-ups: Why Shein is stepping out from behind the ecommerce screen

As an ecommerce giant more used to funnelling sales through its ubiquitous social media ads, real life pop-up stores are not how most consumers typically interact with Chinese retailer Shein.

However, the digitally native brand is currently hosting several retail experiments across the globe as it tests the waters of the physical shopping environment. Last month, Shein opened the doors to its latest pop-up experience in London, a two-day event which was widely considered to be a success.

But why is the fast fashion giant choosing now to expand away from its online heritage and invest in physical retail? Could it be an attempt to make Shein a more visible and less mysterious brand?

What is Shein’s physical strategy?

“Pop-ups allow our customers to experience the product and brand in a physical space, to enhance their overall shopping experience,” Shein told Charged.

“It allows us to have more opportunities for greater interaction with our customers and brand fans.”

Pop-up stores offer a small but significant window for brands to make a memorable impression with consumers. For an ecommerce behemoth like Shein, they present an opportunity to engage its loyal customer base and reinforce its brand image.

“Shein is investing in pop-ups around the globe because it understands that a cool, fresh and fun physical space elevates the perception of both the product and the brand,” Cosu chief creative officer Guy Smith tells Charged.

“Pop-ups create a moment, an event and a tactile, visceral connection between consumer and brand,” he adds.

The company is clearly focused on enhancing its brand awareness and visibility, creating in-person experiences that attract and keep consumers attention.

“Thus far, Shein has had an air of mystery to it, pumping out millions of garments at rock bottom prices but not having bricks-and-mortar stores,” Changing Markets Foundation campaign manager George Harding-Rolls tells Charged.

“I think there’s something that people trust a bit more about a fashion company having a physical presence, somewhere they can touch and feel the clothes, and try them on.”

Harding-Rolls believes Shein’s foray into the physical retail space is not solely about improving sales but is also a “hyping strategy” designed to generate social media attention and fuel its core ecommerce business.

Having “mastered the art” of “supply-chain speed” and “on-trend product delivery”, youth brand builder Gregg L. Witt believes Shein has realised it is the perfect time to deepen its customer connection in key markets.

“Pop-up shops are a highly effective way to activate their strategy and drive word-of-mouth marketing in the highest priority communities,” he says.

“There is always a symbiotic relationship between IRL and social.”

Removing the mystery

Despite its unparalleled popularity, Shein remains shrouded in mystery, with limited detail about the company known by the general public. Perhaps partly as a result of this lack of information and visibility, the company has been rocked by numerous accusations of worker exploitation, harmful environmental practices, lack of supply chain transparency and more.

A Shein spokesperson told Charged: “We understand there’s an interest from the public to understand our company better and we are sharing more news, information and company initiatives on our corporate website along with our company story and aspirations.”

“As we continue to grow the company, we’ll engage our customers and community more to emphasise our commitment to making fashion accessible to all.”

According to Witt, Shein knows full well the challenges ahead and does not want to be perceived as another money-hungry Amazon, “regardless of where the truth lies.”

“Shein’s pop-up strategy is a way of increasing its accessibility and relatability,” he adds.

“The company has learned about data and trend-driven ecommerce and brand building from TikTok, now it is applying those learnings to its pop-up shops.”

Looking more broadly, Harding-Rolls suspects that many of Shein’s recent actions can be viewed through the lens of its rumoured IPO and therefore attempts to buoy up investors, “whether that be showing they can diversify into physical retail space, or their various attempts to address environmental and labour accusations.”

While Shein’s pop-ups fail to address any of the controversies that have plagued the company, they do make the brand less of a mystery and enigma among shoppers. These physical experiences also demonstrate the brand’s versality and willingness to experiment, as it continues its meteoric growth and expansion.

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