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With its first pop-up, TikTok-famous Halara is betting on brick-and-mortar retail

TikTok-viral athleisure brand Halara opened its first temporary pop-up location Thursday as the direct-to-consumer company plots retail expansion in the U.S. and worldwide.

Halara, which is headquartered in both Singapore and New York City, debuted its pop-up store in the Big Apple’s Soho neighborhood this week. The 3,500-square-foot shop is located on Broadway near other retailers, such as Zara and Madewell. Shoppers can visit the pop-up store until June 9. 

Halara was founded in 2020 by Hong Kong-based entrepreneur Joyce Zhang and is notorious for its popularity on social media, particularly TikTok. In 2021 and 2022, the brand saw a lift from the “TikTok made me buy it” phenomenon as Gen Z flocked to buy the brand’s trendy and affordable athleisure apparel. Although the brand has only been around for four years, it’s already racked up more than 660,000 followers on TikTok. Halara’s so-called “Easy Peezy” dress alone has garnered 5 billion views across social media. While Halara declined to share specific sales figures, a representative shared with Modern Retail that the brand has seen 100% year-over-year growth consecutively from 2021 to 2023 and expects to see that same level of growth this year.

Like many digitally native fashion brands, Halara is betting that physical retail will help it reach loyal customers in person and build credibility among new audiences.

Halara’s New York City store is the first of at least four pop-up locations slated to open in the U.S. by the end of the year. Those pop-ups will focus on states where demand for the brand is red-hot, including Texas, California, Florida, Arizona and Pennsylvania, according to Gabby Hirata, Halara’s global brand president. While the brand’s New York City pop-up is a standalone storefront, future pop-ups will experiment with a “shop-in-shop” concept, in which Halara will sell inside the brick-and-mortar stores of other retailers. Halara plans to open flagship stores worldwide within three years.

Pop-up stores are nothing new, but TikTok-popular and digital-native brands like Halara are increasingly testing out the potential of brick-and-mortar retail. Gen Z-centric brand Cider, for example, opened its first pop-up in the U.S. last fall in New York City. Meanwhile, another brand popular among Gen Z, Edikted, has made it clear it’s all-in on brick-and-mortar with the opening of its third store location at Mall of America. For Halara, the New York City pop-up represents a new chapter as the four-year-old company readies itself for global sales growth. 

“Retail expansion with our own stores is definitely the next step,” said Hirata in an interview. “The business demand and the customer growth are there completely.”

Halara’s New York City pop-up store is bright and sleek, with accent walls and displays painted in monochromatic shades of green. Racks of clothes line walls of exposed brick near the store entrance. Further in, shoppers see a display dedicated to pickleball apparel. At the rear of the store, there’s a fireside chat stage, which is intended to build engagement with the digital brand’s New York-based customers, said Hirata, who joined Halara about a year ago after serving as CEO of designer fashion brand DVF. 

While this is Halara’s first pop-up store, it isn’t the first time the brand has tested out physical activations. For example, Halara has conducted more than 30 on-campus events in which the brand not only sells clothes but also hosts events, such as yoga and pickleball sessions. Halara has invested in college students through its campus ambassador program to help raise brand awareness and drive sales. Such universities have included UC San Diego and Texas A&M. Halara has also run real-life sessions in which customers try on the brand’s newest products and provide feedback. 

However, those experiences are “very, very different from this first pop-up experiment that’s opening this week,” said Hirata. 

The reason boils down to operations. Running an online web store versus a brick-and-mortar shop introduces a slew of new responsibilities, including hiring in-store employees amid a labor shortage, as well as managing inventory and in-store returns, according to Mary Ann O’Brien, founder and CEO of marketing and branding agency OBI Creative. 

“Retail is hard. It’s a lot harder than e-commerce, I think, because in e-commerce you have to get several things right — pictures, product descriptions and SEO,” said O’Brien. “But in retail, you have a lot of other things that are beyond your control that can happen.”

For Hirata, the biggest challenge of opening a physical retail location has been keeping costs low. Although pop-ups are by definition temporary, the space is still expensive to rent. By operating as efficiently as possible, Halara makes sure prices are affordable for customers. 

“We’re really frugal, so if we can save one dollar and pass that to the customer in the price point, we do that,” said Hirata, who added that Halara’s low prices are achieved by eliminating excess inventory.

The cost to rent retail space in New York City for a pop-up like Halara’s varies depending on the neighborhood, square footage, as well as amenities such as restrooms and lighting. Meanwhile, the average availability rate for retail space in New York City hit 15.4%, below what it was in 2019. On xNomad, an online marketplace for short-term retail spaces, one listing for a street-level storefront in Soho costs more than $23,000 a week to rent at 1,450 square feet — less than half the size of Halara’s venue. On Storefront, another directory for retail rentals, a 4,000-square-foot showroom in Soho costs $12,000 a day to rent, or $84,000 a week.

Like many direct-to-consumer brands, Halara decided to open a physical storefront in part to give customers tangible access to its products, said Hirata.

But most importantly, said Hirata, brick-and-mortar retail lets Halara gather valuable sales data about how shoppers are engaging with the brand, including feedback on styles and fabrics. Halara designs and produces new products largely based on customer feedback, said Hirata, much of which comes from thousands of reviews posted on the brand’s website. The rest comes from social media. Physical Halara stores, Hirata said, wouldn’t just be about selling clothes. They’d act as incubators for consumer trends as customers try on and review products in real time. 

“We don’t need additional help to sell products because we’re blessed with rapid customer growth,” said Hirata. “We need physical space for people to give us feedback because that feedback is how we make critical decisions about products and market strategy.”

To OBI Creative’s O’Brien, brick-and-mortar retail for a TikTok-popular brand like Halara is an opportunity to give Gen Z customers who are used to shopping on their phones or laptops a new retail experience. 

“If a young person who is behind their screen all day sees a particular brand pop up at a cafe or inside a store, it’s like a little dopamine hit that’s different for them,” she said. “That’s potentially an opportunity for people who already know the brand who now might be more likely to buy multiple things from the brand if it’s right in front of them.”

Although TikTok contributed to Halara’s early success, the brand isn’t dependent on the platform, said Hirata. Halara declined to provide exact figures, but a representative said a “large majority” of the brand’s sales come from Halara’s direct-to-consumer website rather than TikTok. Asked whether a possible TikTok ban in the U.S. influenced Halara’s decision to expand into brick-and-mortar retail, Hirata said no, adding that other platforms such as YouTube, Meta and Google have been valuable in terms of driving sales and customer growth. 

“I will say this pop-up and retail expansion has nothing to do with TikTok being banned or not,” said Hirata. “You cannot rely on only one platform.”