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Poppin' Off 

Sublet mini-stores a sign of retail times

Pop-up stores function like gallery exhibits—they appear for a spell, often with a theme, make some dough, then vamoose. Some are seasonal, like Petaluma's annual Christmas store put up by Marisa's Fantasia. Others are a means for brands like Wired magazine to showcase its curatorial prowess, as with its temporary location in NYC's Times Square.

Trendwatching.com, a self-described "independent and opinionated trend firm" based in London, claims to have coined the term "pop-up store" in 2004. Their cool hunters noticed that the now-defunct airline Song had opened a store in New York's SOHO district with the lifespan of the average fruit fly. As planned, it closed a week later, after seven days of selling samples from the in-flight menu, travel gear and tickets.

Now a new mutation of the pop-up concept is appearing on the retail event horizon—the store-within-a-store.

Consider the recently announced launch of micro–Martha Stewart stores inside JCPenney locations. I had no idea JCPenney still existed or that Martha Stewart was still relevant, but my demographic is likely irrelevant to the department store's new CEO Ron Johnson, who's shepherding the midrange brand's revitalization. (He's also acquiring an almost $40 million stake in Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc.)

On its face, it might not seem like a very exciting premise—the doyenne of domesticality branding some shelf space in a retail chain. What's germane is that Johnson was the brain behind Apple Stores. If Johnson can bring any of the mojo from Steve Jobs' in-house shopping experience, he may be able to create a successful retail Frankenstein out of JCPenney and Martha Stewart. At which point, the editors of Trendwatching.com will explode from smug self-satisfaction as the store-within-a-store trend will have crossed into a hard, cold economic reality.

For some, "it's a good thing." But for those holding the note on vacant retail space, this nesting-doll approach to commerce is trouble. Due to the economic downturn, there's no dearth of available storefronts in which one might temporarily set up shop. Pop-up stores in these spaces could represent a minor reprieve, and would surely be welcomed with open arms like the Spirit Halloween stores that are ubiquitous through September and October. Founded in 1983, the come-and-go costume seller has perfected the large-scale pop-up store model. This year, it filled 900 temporary locations in 48 states and Canada, all in "high visibility, high-traffic strip centers" that would otherwise be empty.

But then, as JCPenney's Johnson probably realized, a standalone Martha Stewart store might also end up empty.

Daedalus Howell is at FMRL.com.

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