West Elm popup shop featuring art by Carolyn Mackin.
Photo courtesy of Carolyn Mackin.
National home decor retailer, West Elm, has a commitment to promoting the work of artisans and crafters in the areas where their stores are located. The store wholesales handcrafted products from local makers through the Local program and they bring makers into the store on weekends for popup shops. The effort began in 2013 with just two stores and now includes more than 90 stores across the United States.
“I think it’s an amazing opportunity to have my name, my brand, associated with West Elm. People just automatically think, ‘Wow! That’s amazing!’ ” says abstract painter Carolyn Mackin who has done two West Elm popups near her home in Wellesley, Massachusetts. “The perception is a really good one.”
Some makers do a West Elm popup shop once and others return month after month. Illustrator Molly Lam has sold her stationary and notecards in her local store in Dallas, Texas, every other month since she initially applied and was accepted as a popup vendor in June of 2016. She uses the events as a way to grow a local following for her work and to build her email list.
Others, like paper quiller Megan Alchowiak, prefer to sell their work in person and West Elm provides them with a ready audience. “My work is dimensional and hard to photograph,” she explains. Alchowiak applied to do a West Elm popup after seeing an open call on Instagram and has now done five at the Rochester, New York, store. She sets up a mini quilling demonstration while she’s there to help pique people’s interest. “Many people don’t know what paper quilling is,” she says. “Once they see it they purchase it immediately.”
West Elm popup shop featuring paper quiller Megan Alchowiak.
Photos courtesy of Megan Alchowiak
How to apply
When painter Laurel Greenfield noticed the local artist section at the West Elm near her home in the Fenway neighborhood of Boston, she asked an employee how she could participate. After submitting photos of her work, the manager booked her for a popup shop. Many makers secure their first popup by inquiring in person like this. Others apply online when West Elm posts a call for makers on their main Instagram account and website.
The popup experience is relatively informal. There’s no contract or official agreement for artisans to sign. After getting approval from the local store manager and setting a date and time, you simply showp up and set up. Artisans process their own orders while at the store and West Elm doesn’t take a commission or collect any sales data.
West Elm popup shop featuring items made by Casey York.
Photo courtesy of Casey York.
How to prepare
Many makers create a new series of work to premier at the popup, posting sneak peeks on Instagram to entice existing fans to make the trip into the store. Greenfield painted a series of artichokes, for example, and quilter Casey York made 30 pillows from hand-dyed fabrics in a distinctive color palette. York priced the pillows between $60-75, a range she’d determined was towards the upper end of the pillows West Elm currently carries.
Large West Elm locations book two or three popups on the same day. Arrive early so you can get a table as close to the store entrance as possible. “Once people come into the store there’s no set path that they follow,” warns Lam. “You’ve got to get them when they walk in or they’ll walk around you.” Take a look at the #westelmlocal and #westelmpopup hashtags on Instagram to get a feel for how different artisans arrange their displays so that you can gather the right props and fixtures to bring along.
Test your credit card processing system and be sure to bring a battery backup and have plenty of cash on hand to make change. Showing kindness and consideration towards the West Elm employees and store manager at every step goes a long way towards having a successful and fun popup experience.
Marketing the popup
“You can’t go in there and think that random shoppers at West Elm focused on furniture – the couch, the table they came in to look at – will focus on you. It’s really hard to redirect them and get them engaged,” says Mackin. Of the people who interacted with her canvases during the popup, she estimates that a third were friends and family, a third were people who follow her on Instagram, and a third were West Elm shoppers who had never seen her work before.
Consider listing the event on a citywide online calendar or in your town newspaper or doing some advertising on Facebook and Instagram. Alchowiak visits the store a week in advance of her popup and takes photos of herself outside the store holding her newest work. She posts these on social media in the days leading up to the event to build excitement.
Often, but not always, the local West Elm store will post about the popup on their Instagram account with images you send and tag you. All of the makers I spoke with said that this social sharing was one of the most valuable aspects of the entire experience, helping to build their own followings on both social media channels.
West Elm popup shop featuring items art by Laurel Greenfield.
Photo courtesy of Laurel Greenfield.
Molly Lam’s first pop up shop at West Elm.
Photo courtesy of Molly Lam.
Artisans can choose where in the store to set up their wares. Greenfield, who paints kitchen-themed art, chose a dining room display for her wares rather than the frames display to help her paintings stand out. York chose a couch to display her pillows, but in retrospect wishes she’d set up elsewhere in the store. ‘They looked like regular West Elm merchandise,” she says. She wished she’d visited the store in advance to observe the traffic flow before choosing her spot. Many makers recommended the front of the store as the best location for a popup display.
“With your display, go big,” encourages Mackin. “Think vertically.” She brought six large canvases in order to make a splash. She also arrived with a series of crates to lift work off the floor. Mackin advises thinking about your display from multiple angles. “You may not be up against a wall so people could approach you from any direction.” Bring a sign or banner to differentiate your display from the store’s regular merchandise.
During the popup it’s common for customers to assume you work for West Elm. To differentiate yourself from West Elm employees, wear a name tag identifying yourself as a local artisan and dress for the part. Rather than wearing black, for example, wear a garment that matches your products (sewn from the same fabric or in the same color palette) or simply wear something colorful and bold that will help you stand out.
Mall shoppers are typically in a different mindset from craft fair shoppers. “It can be super awkward,” says Lam. “They don’t know why you’re there, hovering over this table. You need to approach them and make a pitch.”
Molly Lam set up her most recent pop up shop at West Elm more simply. “I’m learning that simpler layout and less on the table is definitely better for sales,” she said.
Photo courtesy of Molly Lam.
Building an audience
Use the popup as an opportunity to build a local audience for your work. The most effective way to do this is to ask people to sign up for your mailing list either on a clipboard or tablet. “If [shoppers] were excited about my work or complimented it in any way then I would encourage them to get on my mailing list,” says Mackin “I think that’s critical.” Still, she was only able to get six new signups at her first popup.
Actively working to engage shoppers is critical to building your audience and making sales. “While you’re there don’t ever sit down,” she advises. Use the popup as an opportunity to take photos. Mackin who is trained as a professional photographer, used her spare time during the popup to take photos of her paintings staged with West Elm furnishings and accessories.
Where can it lead
It’s important to manage your expectations when doing a West Elm popup. The five makers I spoke with grossed on average $25-500 at each 4-5 hour event. York didn’t sell anything at all. “It was pretty disappointing,” she says. “But in terms of what I learned, it was valuable.” Since her product line is still in the beginning stages, she came away satisfied that she’d created inventory and figured out a display.
Greenfield hopes that the popup experience will lead West Elm corporate buyers to purchase her prints wholesale to sell in stores all over her state through the Local program. West Elm stores don’t collect data on the sales numbers for each artist who does a popup, but Veronica Ray, the assistant store manager of operations at the West Elm in St. Louis, says that she notes anecdotally who seems to be selling successfully.
“Things that are trending on Instagram tend to do well,” she says. “Macrame planters, popular animal motifs like elephants, foxes, and this year the llama.” One particularly successful maker sold animal-shaped ceramic planters. “People came in asking for her stuff for days afterwards,” Ray says. Ray recommends those makers she feels are the best fit to the Local program coordinator for consideration. Although selling wholesale to West Elm isn’t every maker’s goal, doing a popup can be a good entry point for those who are interested.
“Ultimately West Elm is giving you a free opportunity to talk to their customers,” Lam says. “People recognize the name West Elm and it gives you a bump in credibility.” York concurs. “Doing a West Elm popup is like writing a book,” she says. “It gives you legitimacy and it’s a marketing exercise that benefits both companies.”