Ricky’s Perennial Pop-Up

Dress-up time is never so au fait. Earlier this month the windows of a former Brooklyn laundromat sprung to life with a jumble of brightly colored placards announcing the revival of the skeletal recesses of the space. The advertisements portray polished approximations of Snooki, Lady Gaga, JetBlue’s “Angry Steward” and other ephemeral icons of popular culture all basking in the glow of their fifteen-minutes-of-faux-pas. Even within that, it’s hard to miss the brightly illustrated shape of a squeezed tube of ambiguous turquoise paste, the bubblegum-pink Ricky’s NYC logo emblazoned in the center.

Ricky’s pop-up explosion occurs annually in early autumn, with stores as numerous and bright as stoop-side Jack-o’-lanterns. Halloween creates the opportunity to completely change one’s identity for a day, and Ricky’s posits itself as a willing participant in this enterprise, cornering the New York City market as a masterful proponent of the art of disguise. The campy beauty supply and costume retail chain was founded in 1989 by brothers Ricky and Todd Kenig, Todd’s wife Carmen and business partner Dominick Costello. Its origins were rooted in an independent pharmacy founded in the 1970s by the Kenig brothers’ father, Al. But as Duane Reade, CVS and Rite Aid engulfed the market in the 1980s, the Kenig brothers decided to transform the modest pharmacy into the over-the-top store it is today.

This year the chain’s pop-up density has reached an all-time high, with over 40 locations throughout the five boroughs and a smattering in the Tri-State Region. While pop-up stores began proliferating across the city several years ago as a way for rent-starved landlords to fill vacant spaces for a few weeks between long-term leases, they now have a new function thanks to the protracted recession. Commercial storefronts are quietly playing host to a revolving cast of month-to-month retailers, giving merchants the opportunity to create more buzz for their buck with no obligation to lease permanently.

Ricky’s sets the model for how a chain can use the temp-friendly climate to test-drive locations, feel out the clientele and use their demographic findings to establish permanent locations.  Ricky’s studies merchandise sold at a particular pop-up store to judge the values of the community. As a store whose target demographic is primarily adults—women in particular—a dearth in sexy costume sales in a stroller-heavy community says a lot more about the spending priorities of the mother than her choice of superhero costume for her toddler.

The pop-up’s short-term nature creates built-in hype, drawing customers to nearby stores on the same block and helping landlords boost rents. While the mutually beneficial landlord–retailer relationship seems to be an auspicious undertaking, there is a catch. The graphic garishness of Ricky’s aesthetic is, by itself, a strident and successful campaign, but when combined with the intrigue of a pop-up location during an appropriately costume-centric holiday, a landlord would be hard-pressed to find an equally effective tenant. For independent businesses in particular, the pop-up store requires an enormous investment: hiring employees, estimating necessary merchandise, installing appropriate fixtures and decorations and more. And while Ricky’s has managed to turn the pop-up into a worthwhile endeavor, the gains for less stable vendors may not be worth the risk involved.

The current popularity of a here-today-gone-tomorrow store with a flair for theatricality such as Ricky’s is not surprising. The protracted economic downturn has enabled the pop-up model, as retailers and landlords alike forsake long-term stability for short-term profit. Like the Sarah Palin and Spice Girl ensembles of yesteryear, duffeled in the hollows of a crawlspace or doomed to plague the last page of an unclicked Ebay auction—or for those less sentimental, out at the curb along with the rest of the post-holiday trash—the pop-up stores are loved-hard and short-lived. The transience of both has never felt so timely.

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