Seattle Small Businesses Are Popping Up on Instagram
POOPU and a Polaroid—basically analog Instagram.
When Seattle’s Properly Organized and Orderly Pop-Up sells an item, one member of the founding trio must hover over the Instagram comments section. Her job: identify which customer reacted quickly enough to claim, say, a floral ceramic candlestick by local artist Shannon Hobbs. It’s gone in a matter of seconds.
It wasn't always this way. Back in some now-distant past, these popups were full-on events, held in places draped with tinsel where, cofounder Shaana Hatamian says, “you could hang out and dance and, like, look at this beautiful flower sculpture.” Late last year, in the thick of Covid restrictions, the popup (which goes by the hilarious acronym POOPU) took their long-planned holiday party to Instagram. Their success might help explain why so many small businesses use the app to sell their wares, if not exactly in the way Instagram intends.
POOPU’s approach is almost like waiting in line for a new sneaker release. The site dropped a collection of Seattle designer Bad Ratio’s airbrushed tees promptly at 10am one Monday in November; cofounder Julia Kernerman’s hand-painted nesting dolls followed a few hours later. Commenters quickly flooded the posts to claim each item (those who just weren’t fast enough, better luck next time). This method “kind of helps make it feel more in real time, rather than click a button and, you know, purchase this,” says cofounder Sarah Chu.
It took a bit of troubleshooting. Selling their own designs first taught the POOPU girls to watch those comments and to set up clear procedures for buyers to follow up with payment. But the planning (after all, “properly organized and orderly” is in the name) ultimately paid off. Over the course of a full-scale virtual holiday market, with goods from 13 mostly local designers, nearly every item got purchased.
“A majority of our artists say that they’ve sold more than they’ve ever sold at any other popup market,” Kernerman says of the Instagram trial. Part of that success has to do with curation, by three humans, not an algorithm—POOPU’s items are all gorgeous but silly, the stuff of dreams for certain earth-tone-exhausted Seattleites. As Kernerman puts it, “we’re really conscious of who our customer is.”
Their customer, it turns out, is on Instagram. Over 90 percent of its users follow a business, according to the company’s communications team. Direct-to-consumer giants built their brands there, including Seattle-based Girlfriend Collective, a line of sustainable, size-inclusive athleisure (that happens to look great in photographs). Instagram’s built-in shopping functionality has exploded in recent years—now, you can browse and buy without ever leaving the app’s candy-colored cocoon. A few local shops like Lucky Vintage are in on the game, but those shopping features aren’t particularly useful to the smallest of small businesses. Instagram head of product Vishal Shah said in 2019 that half of the businesses on the app don’t list a URL of their own. But brands do need some e-commerce platform, like Shopify, to participate. Instagram also takes a chunk of the sales it facilitates.
That’s where the creativity of the internet’s mom-and-pop shops comes in. Some simply use Instagram as a traditional marketing platform, ultimately directing customers to their own site through a classic link in bio. Others use the platform as a sort of marketplace or auction house. Instagram-only furniture shops like Massive Crush and Cool House Vintage ask interior-obsessed Seattleites to claim art deco love seats or dining tables via direct message; posts are usually updated with an all-caps SOLD once items have been snagged. Others, like POOPU, make Instagram shopping a platform for engagement. The genuine, human kind, not just the kind that gets measured by clicks.
POOPU’s post-pandemic dreams include returning as a real-life market. But their DIY e-commerce has transformed one small corner of Instagram’s massive shopping platform into something that mimics, however inadequately, the experience of shopping in real life. Remember? The type of outing where vendors and patrons engage, unmitigated by obscured smiles, social distance, and time limits. For now, heart emojis come close.