SANTA ANA, CALIF. – On a starry January evening in Laguna Beach, Calif., the conversation and wine flowed freely at the 16th Colony trunk show. At the pop-up shopping event, Renee Rogers, designer of the Irvine-based line of hand-sewn, premium ponchos, mingled with fans at Sourced Collective, a vintage-styled cottage that doubles as a workspace for local artists and creatives.
The year-old 16th Colony brand has an online store, and several boutiques carry the line in the region; but by the end of the three-hour event, Rogers had sold $1,000 worth of her ponchos to new customers, and scored a wholesale account at a local boutique.
Trunk shows — a term that originally referred to traveling salesmen displaying their wares in steamer trunks — have gained popularity in designer and boutique circles as retailers seek new ways to reach consumers who increasingly shop with discounting and convenience on their minds.
“The trunk show has evolved,” Rogers said, adding that she plans a couple shows per collection. “It used to be designers would show boutique owners their lines, and they would buy them wholesale after seeing what customers thought.”
Now, it’s a way to build brand recognition and engage the customer directly. And for boutiques that host trunk shows, it’s a way to offer the loyal shopping community something unique. Some negotiate a cut of the sales, or charge a fee as an event space.
“Now it’s possible to have more success with trunk shows because with Facebook and Instagram, people you would never ever meet will follow you, and if they see you’re advertising a show and they’re local, they might be inclined to come,” Rogers said. “I can talk about the inspiration, about the fabric I use, how to take care of it. It helps people feel connected to the brand, and that one-on-one connection in a relaxed environment is a good contrast to online.”
Indeed, given retail’s shift toward e-commerce, the trunk show represents a way to bridge the physical and online worlds in a way that encourages shoppers to do the unthinkable: willingly pay full price.
“The exclusive nature of a trunk show is a way to convince customers that they are getting something special for their time and money,” said Roseanne Morrison, fashion director for the Doneger Group, a fashion-industry consulting firm.
This has led to the success of businesses like New York City’s Suite 1521, billed as an exclusive in-person shopping club — a space created for invite-only members to buy straight from designers in part-trunk-show, part-flash-sale events.
“Antonio Berardi told me that in one trunk show, he did $100,000,” Morrison said of the British fashion designer. “His attitude changed to a ‘we have to do more of these.’ ”
For traditional boutiques, there is money to be made as well. A Chicago-based specialty clothing store, the Lake Forest Shop, hosted a trunk show last summer with designers Tom and Linda Platt; the show ultimately brought in more than $200,000 in sales.
Morrison also pointed out that one of the first fashion companies to leverage the trunk-show concept as its core business model was Moda Operandi, a website that allows customers to preorder designer pieces as they come down the runway — months before they hit stores, if they hit stores — with a 50 percent deposit and no refund. The average order on the site is well over $1,000, and the company has so far raised more than $78 million from investors, including LVMH, the luxury goods conglomerate that owns brands such as Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs.
“The whole dynamic has changed into personalized service, interacting with the designer, and feeling special that they have it before anyone else. You don’t get that shopping day to day,” Morrison said. “Moda Operandi is the new business model: everything bought at full price. Who doesn’t love that?”
From an operational standpoint, trunk shows and other pop-up events offer economic advantages to designers and retailers as well.
“These are the perfect opportunities to show the world who you really are, and what you stand for, one-on-one,” said Max Lenderman, CEO and founder of School, a digital and experiential marketing agency that has worked with Best Buy, Axe and Dominos. “You can experiment and see where customers want you to go.”
Indeed, pop-ups are being tested by everyone from publicly traded companies to small-business owners. Last summer, Anaheim-based surf wear retailer Pacific Sunwear opened its first-ever pop-up shop in New York’s SoHo shopping district.