The low down on popping up

Melanie Abdilla
April 05, 2013
Written by Melanie Abdilla
CutiePie Cupcakes & Co., my Toronto-based bakery, is not your regular cupcake shop. At CutiePie’s, there is no fancy storefront or walk-in service, so clients need to seek us out to book orders in advance for their special events and planned indulgences. Everything is baked to order for each client, and to the disappointment of some, no cupcake stock is carried on site. Also, orders are sold only in large quantities.

Pop-up shops seem to be gaining traction, and over the holidays I was presented with a pop-up opportunity that I could not refuse, one that would take our company in a new and different direction by challenging our production capacities and changing our operational structure. CutiePie’s was asked to host the 2012 holiday pop-up shop at the Holt Renfrew department store in Yorkdale Shopping Centre. It was an offer we excitedly accepted, and one that came with a few lessons I will share with you here.

Holt Renfrew, the Canadian luxury retailer that celebrated its 175th birthday last year, hosts an in-store cupcake pop-up shop each winter holiday. The common question I got asked after landing this gig was: “How did you end up in Holts?” The truth is that it all happened very quickly, with little notice or even time to plan. I was told that the company that had hosted it the previous year declined the 2012 pop-up because they were too busy with expansion to take on the additional task. Being too busy is never a bad thing, and in this case it left the opportunity at Holt Renfrew open for us. Holt Renfrew was already familiar with our name and they approached us.

We had never done a pop-up shop and with only about 10 days to throw it together, I worked solely on insight, intuition, and trial and error. The key to our survival was observation and adaptation. There were many learning curves and we simply kept what worked and modified what didn’t. The newly commissioned staff and I had to be quick on our feet. Some of the major challenges we faced had to do with transporting the cupcakes to the pop-up location, the setup of CutiePie’s booth, and the issue of inventory and wastage.

Baking the cupcakes was business as usual, but transporting the sweet treats in boxes from the kitchen to Yorkdale was most definitely a challenge at first. Normally CutiePie’s sells larger packages so we did have to alter this for the pop-up, selling prepackaged and ready-to-sell boxes of six, 12 and 24. Transporting the boxes was no easy feat at first as our miniature cupcakes seemed to have a mind of their own, even with their special packaging designed to keep them separated and secure.

On the first run, many of the cupcakes suffered catastrophic movement and were not even sellable. We found that especially because we were selling them in a location that is highly visual and particular, even the slightest smudge of delicious frosting was very undesirable to the clientele. That being said, we quickly learned tricks to keep the boxes from shifting about by packing them tightly in larger boxes to ensure as little movement within each box as possible. By the end, and to our great relief, there were barely any casualties at all!

Throughout our stay in Holt Renfrew, the location of the pop-up within the store and the actual setup/display of the booth evolved over the weeks. In collaboration with the organizers at Holts, we tested out a couple different locations within the store based on foot traffic and the amount of exposure they anticipated we would get in different locations. We tried a couple of areas and we found that being in a destination spot was more effective than being in simply a high-traffic walkway. Hands down, the winning location was the women’s shoe department! Who doesn’t love shoes and cupcakes?! I must say it was fantastic to look around and see CutiePie’s brand immersed amongst the Christian Louboutins, Jimmy Choos, Chanels, Marc Jacobs and other high-end brands. It was quite humbling, to say the least.

Visually, we altered the pop-up display a few times. We started with a simple linen covered table that displayed our boxes and signage. We ended up trading this in for a more chic look and incorporated an antique display shelf. The antique display looked much more appealing, although we found sales were better with the table as people understood that the cupcakes were actually for sale rather than just part of a showcase. We decided to take the best of both options and transform the antique display to include a little table as well. For us, this seemed to both attract the most attention and sales.

Balancing the inventory to prevent wastage was another big challenge we faced. Normally, we know exactly how much we need to make as everything is baked to order and wastage is kept to a minimum. Having never serviced walk-ins before, and not being familiar with Holt’s clientele, we had absolutely no idea what to expect in terms of sales. Therefore, we had no idea of how much product to bake each day. The very first day we hugely overestimated the quantities needed and ended up with quite a bit of wastage (which technically worked out as many suffered casualties in transport and were unsellable anyways). Over the duration of our stay, we did notice that there was some degree of buying patterns, depending on both the day of the week and certain hours in the day. This also changed as we approached Christmas Day.

We found Saturdays were the busiest and sales peaked a bit later in the day/evening. On the busier days, people had more parties to go to and preferred to purchase cupcakes later on their way out to avoid lugging them around the mall. We took all these factors into consideration and over time the wastage became much more controlled and to our delight pretty much selling out at the end!

Although there were a few bumps along the way, we overcame them and learned a tremendous amount, overall having a terrific experience working with Holts. One of the best parts of hosting a pop-up shop was having the opportunity to interact face to face the entire time with cupcake lovers. Typically, unless clients have met us at an event, they come across us online, so we do not get to witness their initial response to our brand and product firsthand; often we only hear about it after the fact. Standing there in person gave us the chance to really interact and communicate with our clients and to witness their initial response. This was extremely rewarding and was a constant reminder to us of why we do what we do. Cupcakes really do make people happy and to be part of something like this was just fantastic!


Melanie Abdilla is the owner of CutiePie Cupcakes & Co., a Toronto bakery specializing in turning classic dessert flavours into miniature cupcakes.

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