ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
And now for All Tech Considered. Today in All Tech, the changing world of e-commerce. Mobile technology makes it easier than ever to buy stuff. It just takes the tap of an app. So social media companies are now experimenting with retail, encouraging people to buy on impulse, as we'll hear shortly. And some online sellers are now opening physical stores. But as NPR's Elise Hu reports, you have to move fast if you want to visit one. They last for a limited time.
JOE LAPADULA: We're on Kenmare and Elizabeth. We're going to the corner of Bowery and Kenmare.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: On this bustling corner in New York's SoHo neighborhood, you'll find what was once the Bowery Subway Station.
LAPADULA: And actually right here, we have the staircase going down to what was the subway.
HU: Today, Joe LaPadula rents out this corner spot to a retail company selling pants at 40 percent off. Other days, this space serves as a test kitchen and bar. Or it hosts showrooms for press events. The one thing this place doesn't do is anything permanent.
LAPADULA: Pop-ups are this idea of selling something for a temporary period of time, has been around since human trade has been around.
HU: So what happens when human trade is over the Internet? Boom times for more temporary physical spaces. An industry is springing up around pop-ups. LaPadula works for OpenHouse, a company that owns storefronts in the always fashion-forward SoHo, and rents them out for retail, promotional events, exhibits, whatever clients need.
LAPADULA: As long as they can change it back, they can do whatever they want.
HU: Leases can last as short as a single day, or shorter.
LAPADULA: I think, actually, Trojan Condoms was the shortest. So it was about 20 minutes. It was the shortest one.
HU: Los Angeles-based industry consultant Syama Meagher has been watching pop-up retailing develop for the last half-decade.
SYAMA MEAGHER: With food trucks becoming more and more open and available and kind of the migration of bringing that, I actually think that pop-up shops kind of followed suit.
HU: As consumers do more and more on our mobile devices, the short-term leases promised by pop-ups mean brands can be more mobile, too, moving around to where their customers cluster.
MEAGHER: Larger online brands are bridging together these empty spaces and starting to find ways to get in front of their customers.
HU: The old retail world meant long-established brands existed first in brick-and-mortar stores. Then they expanded online. Now, LaPadula says the model is flipped.
LAPADULA: And the business model is innovative in a way. And that's because you can now start a company on the Internet, and then there's this intermediary step between a brick-and-mortar where you can pop up and have this tactile, real experience.
HU: That clicks-to-bricks model, as the marketing folks call it, is exactly what happened with the eyewear brand, Warby Parker. Dave Gilboa is one of Warby Parker's co-founders.
DAVE GILBOA: When we launched, we had no plans to open physical stores, and so we're kind of learning as we go along.
HU: They learned first by using their apartment as a showroom. They also experimented with a traveling bus full of frames. And they used pop-up stores as labs.
GILBOA: It was just kind of a fun space for us to really experiment. So if you need help narrowing it down, let me know.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK, thanks.
GILBOA: What time's your appointment?
HU: While you can easily buy Warby Parker frames without ever stepping foot into a store - and many people do - the glasses brand found many of its customers still crave a physical experience. So what were once pop-ups have become something permanent.
GILBOA: Right now we're in our Greene Street store in SoHo. This is the first store that we opened.
HU: Floor to ceiling bookshelves line the wall of this sprawling store, displaying alternating columns of books and the complete Warby Parker glasses line. Since opening this location, the company has signed two more long-term leases for New York stores. Co-founder, Gilboa.
GILBOA: There is still something tangible that you can't replace when you're walking into a store, engaging all five senses.
HU: The shopping options now before us engage not just all our senses, but all our spaces - real life and virtual. Syama Meagher.
MEAGHER: You're going to have a chance to experience brands unlike you have before, being that they're going to be in your hands, in your face and in your mind and on your phone all at once, all the time.
HU: A lot for customers to consider. For the brands, experimenting with spaces that don't last can lead to a lasting business. Elise Hu, NPR News.