When I scroll Instagram these days, I’m mostly eyeballing popups: Hi Helen’s high-stacked East Coast breakfast sandwiches, designer fashions at Baby and Company’s brief return to Seattle from Sun Valley, the latest brand featured in Nordstrom’s pop-in series. Each turns up in town for a month, a week, or, sometimes, just a few hours before packing up and disappearing without a trace. Missed it? Better luck next time—if there is a next time, wiggling Boomerang videos seem to taunt.

That’s kind of the point, says Francesca Valsesia, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business. We want to go to popups because we’re terrified of missing them. It’s the same FOMO marketers have long produced through special promotions, now built into an entire business model where being here today and gone tomorrow is the whole idea. Scarcity—whether real or artificial—boosts the value of a good. And of course, it gives us something to talk about. Have you been? Have you been?

Popups were especially huge in Seattle over the past year or so because, well, you know. Creative minds spun plentiful free time into high-demand hobbies. The rest of us yearned for something—anything—to do.

Social media is essential to their survival: Businesses that exist only in popup form need to build hype quickly to let fans know where and when they’ll be slinging their goods. Instagram photos of impossibly overstuffed sweets from Coping Cookies or pepperoni-
laden Detroit-style pizza from Chachi’s PNW serve as reminders to pre-order before it’s too late. And, you may have noticed, it’s also a great place to brag about getting in on an elusive novelty because “you think you’re gonna be making your friends jealous,”
Valsesia says.

So is it all just a marketing ploy? Not quite: In a city increasingly homogenized by behemoth online retailers and shuttering local gems, popups give entrepreneurial types an economically viable way to find their audiences. And they feed customers hungry to experience something unique, in real life, with other people. Now that’s something worth talking about.

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