There are pop-up restaurants, pop-up shops, even pop-up art exhibitions. What started as a niche practice is now ubiquitous and increasingly prevalent across the Middle East and particularly appeals to the most coveted demographics: GenZ and millennials.
The emphasis is always on the experience. For example, the legendary chef Alain Ducasse recently opened a pop-up restaurant in AlUla, a first for the historic site of Jabal Ikmah.
The new venture uses local ingredients from nearby farms to create French dishes influenced by the region. One such dish is confit camel, which is slow-cooked using French cooking techniques.
There are pop-up cafes in the desert, such as Cafe Âme nestled amidst the dunes of the Al Qudra desert and Caia Bamboo in the serene enclave of Al-Marmoum Conservation Reserve. Last year, Dubai-born brand Salt, which regularly does creative pop-ups, combined culture and cuisine at its Japan-inspired pop-up in the Museum of the Future.
Also, hundreds of pop-up dining experiences, markets and shops are opening up in different cities in the region every week, and its loyal patrons follow.
People crave customized and authentic experiences. They like things that tell a story.
Artists, independent retailers, local makers, and sustainability campaigners are taking retail spaces. The number of pop-ups in the region has increased by 20% in the past year, and some represent big brands.
ALTERNATIVE SHOPPING SCENE
There has never been more motivation for collaboration and innovation in the retail sector. The temporal and spatial flexibility of pop-ups seems to help create cities of participation, sharing, and resourcefulness. Commercial real estate brokers and malls rent out their space, and local and large businesses rent it, not for traditional five- or ten-year leases, but for days, weeks, and months.
In the Middle East, what’s interesting is inside glitzy malls, there is a buzzing alternative shopping scene, with several unique pop-up markets featuring artisanal food stalls, quirky pieces of jewelry, and other interesting objects. They are locally sourced and produced, with original creations and designs.
“The thriving pop-up economy in the Middle East is closely linked to the unique role that malls play in the region, serving as social hubs and providing comfortable indoor spaces,” says Simon Hacker, CEO &
Founder of Alpha Nero, a luxury retail manufacturing company.
While not the sole driving force, malls play a pivotal role in addressing consumer preferences for distinctive encounters, says Nancy Ozbek, General Manager at Times Square Center Dubai.
“Pop-up shops contribute significantly to the ever-evolving landscape of shopping malls, offering dynamic and immersive experiences. Moreover, successful pop-up engagements have the potential to transition into a more extended stay, providing brands with a platform for sustained growth and impact,” she adds.
Among the noteworthy success stories are Studio Lab, Picasso Artists, Citron, and Otaku Me, which launched their businesses through pop-ups and navigated their way into the competitive UAE market.
The pop-up industry is diverse, with one major segment being retail pop-ups, catering to a wide range of products. Over the years, Ozbek says, Times Square Center has witnessed numerous brands starting as pop-up stores and evolving into long-term tenants within the mall.
“A notable example is our tenant, Eggs & Soldiers, who initially started selling their products on a table during one of our weekend markets,” says Ozbek. “Over time, due to their success, they have expanded to an even larger unit, a permanent shop now occupying almost 5,000 sqm. This is one of our successful pop-up tenants.”
These success stories underscore the effectiveness of pop-ups as a strategic entry point into the market, allowing brands to resonate with their niche customer base.
DIVERSE PRODUCTS AND EXPERIENCES
Hacker adds that pop-up events flourish as they offer diverse products and experiences to a broad consumer base in a melting pot of cultures across a multicultural calendar of events and celebrations in the region. And it isn’t difficult to see why luxury brands are jumping on the same bandwagon.
“Dubai, being a luxury shoppers’ paradise, is certainly seen to be a pop-up magnet, with Prada, Gucci, LVMH, and Jacquemus leading the trend recently.”
Dior enlisted the help of WASP, an Italian 3D printer maker, to open a pop-up store on the beautiful Jumeirah beach two years ago.
The Dubai Design District has become a prominent platform for fashion pop-ups, serving as a launchpad for emerging designers to showcase their talents and gain exposure.
Recent pop-up trends in the region focus on beauty, luxury, fashion, and accessories. “This inclination is largely driven by the appeal of limited edition lines and the association with influencer and designer collaborations, creating a niche that delivers a curated experience to a local audience,” says Hacker.
BENEFITS OF POP-UPS
There are multiple reasons why pop-ups thrive. It offers businesses, retailers, and brands many benefits, allowing brands to test a concept, offshoot, local adaptation, or limited line in real time without the pressure of permanent space and the lease tag that comes with it.
It also offers businesses a flexible and cost-effective approach to enhance visibility, engage directly with customers, and explore new markets or products.
“These temporary retail spaces provide a platform for increased brand exposure, collaborations, and seasonal promotions, capturing attention and generating buzz. The limited commitment and lower financial risk associated with pop-up shops empower businesses to experiment with different concepts and locations,” says Ozbek.
Hacker says brands can understand the market dynamics before investing in a standalone store or local expansion strategy.
“As shopfitters, we also see that pop-ups tend to be a more intimate customer connection with brands versus boutiques, which can be quite intimidating for consumers, especially those starting their journey with a luxury brand.”
Pop-up brand activations can help brands reach their target audience and allow brands to hand-pick locations based on their target audience.
“We saw this when we created an exclusive preview into the world of Assouline via a pop-up store in Diriyah, which is now synonymous with all things heritage and culture in Saudi Arabia,” says Hacker.
Brands can also share their story with customers tangibly and compellingly, tailored to the brand’s DNA but also curated around the values of their target audience.
“Dior uses pop-ups to tell its story of elegance, femininity, and French luxury. Most recently at their dioriviera pop-up for Nammos, Dubai –cleverly captivating a specific generation of buyers,” Hacker says.
Also, the region’s growing entrepreneurship trend finds pop-ups as a low-barrier entry, enabling testing and direct customer engagement. Social media amplifies these experiences, fostering buzz and broader reach.
Some companies, like321 Events,specialize in crafting pop-up event experiences. “We believe pop-ups offer a unique platform to create temporary, immersive environments, turning moments into lasting memories. The transient nature of pop-ups allows us to infuse each event with exclusivity,” says Zoha Beig, CEO of 321 Events.
Pop-ups transcend transactions, focusing on creating immersive experiences, adds Beig.“The trend is gaining immense popularity in the region, as audiences seek unique, temporary encounters over traditional buying.”
Experts say in a region saturated with luxury brands and discerning consumers, pop-ups need to offer one-of-a-kind installations with bold aesthetics, futuristic lighting, unconventional material, and disruptive concepts that engage all five senses and outlast dwindling attention spans in multi-sensory, hyperphysical formats.
“Brands and luxury houses rooted in tradition also realize the power of the pop-up when it comes to innovating while still maintaining their heritage,” says Hacker.
Hermès installed a traveling, sustainable pop-up, Le Monde d’Hermès Kiosk, to create a communal gathering that contextualized the brand identity in Dubai Design District a couple of years ago.
“The sustainable pop-up reinterpreted the iconic Hermes icons and patterns, using 3D printing with concepts of recycling, reuse, and communal gathering,” says Hacker.
The forward-thinking mentality of small and big businesses – on- and offline – will be an ever more apparent staple of successful pop-ups, including an increased focus on foot-traffic targeting, lowering overhead costs, and utilizing new technologies.
“The Middle East’s global prominence attracts international brands seeking a temporary presence. In essence, the pop-up economy thrives on consumer demand for uniqueness, entrepreneurship, social media influence, and the region’s global allure,” says Ozbek.