Despite a difficult festive period, sales at leading fashion retailer Primark are up 7.5% compared to last year. And, located on one of Madrid’s busiest shopping streets – the bustling Gran Via - its glitzy new flagship store has been attributed as one of the reasons for the company’s upturn in fortunes.

Second only to its Manchester branch, the Madrid store boasts 134,900 sq ft of retail space. With five floors of digital technology, bespoke art installations, a 360 degree cinematic experience, and laser screens promoting the products on offer, the store signified a deliberate move by the retailer to take the Primark brand into the future.

Primark is a big fan of the flagship model. Only last year, the Dublin-based retailer announced its entrance into the US market with another creative concept, including a plethora of changing LED lights, neon hanging chandeliers, touchscreens, and interactive apps.

Undoubtedly the A-lister of the retail world, these dazzling stores look impressive. But it’s not just about appearance.

Flagship vs Pop-ups, what creates the best customer experience?

Flagships are emotional

Faced with tough competition from online retailers, today’s bricks and mortar stores need to do all they can to lure online consumers back into the physical world. Creating multi-sensory experiences, flagship stores are emotional. Connecting with shoppers through the use of aesthetic and interactive elements, flagships are a destination venue in their own right.

Consider fashion designer Louis Vuitton’s Singapore flagship ‘Island Maison’ for example. With indoor canals offering gondola rides, underwater tunnels, art exhibitions, and a synthetic ice rink, while many visitors come to enjoy three floors of retail space, others come simply to marvel at its design and the view of the Singapore skyline.

While Island Maison was launched in 2011, today, the best flagships continue to provide something unique. Something that generates that all important ‘wow factor’ and a memorable shopping experience.

Flagships generate brand awareness

Of course, in addition to appealing to shoppers, flagships also provide the perfect opportunity to showcase a brand. As such, they are not just about profit. Instead, flagships very clearly set out what a brand represents. Who its target audience is, and how it is different from the competition.

Often located in the most glamorous of locations, with the most impressive floor space, nothing about the flagship is subtle. Instead, its design purpose is to be noticed, and to win hearts and minds.

Interestingly, by focusing on the brand, the flagship can also be used to test the market to see what works, and alternatively what does not. Flagships often have the most flexible and experimental design in a store’s chain, they are the catwalk of the retail world.

But of course, while it’s not always about ROI, flagships also allow retailers to create more variations of display in highly relevant or valuable areas. These areas specifically have a high footfall and which in turn contribute massively to revenue.

Flagships can be costly

Not every flagship requires a budget to match that of Louis Vuitton. For example, when River Island launched their new concept store at the Bullring in Birmingham, display and lighting were used to deliver the necessary ‘wow factor’, with lightboxes, canvasses, and statement displays strategically positioned to evoke the feeling of an art gallery.

However, a certain level of investment is required to make a flagship a success, and the stores usually need the support of design agency partners and a redevelopment budget. The low impact flagship is unlikely to impress anyone and simply blend in with its competitors, this could actually damage a brand’s long-term success.

Likewise, the costs to upkeep a flagship store can be prohibitive. Not only do they attract a higher level of footfall (so require regular maintenance to keep them looking good), but they also run the risk of becoming stale if not regularly refurbished. Relevancy is the challenge that faces all retailers. Design trends change rapidly, and, all too often a store’s interior can become dated or out of sync with its customers. For flagships, in particular, falling out of favour can be the kiss of death.

As such, for many retailers, the flagship stores are an essential part of their brand strategy, others preferring a more risk-adverse approach. But just how do high street retailers find new and innovative ways to engage without losing any of the impact?

Pop-ups are on the rise

According to a 2015 report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr), pop-up retail is now worth £2.3 billion to the UK economy. That’s 0.76% of total UK retail turnover (up from 0.6% the year before) and an increase of more than £200 million in sales. It appears, therefore, that the allure of the pop-up is catching on, with exclusive products, unique locations, and minimal store design striking a cord with shoppers and contributing to a short-term, high-impact increase in attention for brands.

There is no doubt that the line between traditional retail and pop-ups are becoming blurred. We’re seeing established retailers and previously online-only brands using the emerging model to test out possible new locations and product lines. Indeed, according to the report, 8% of retailers launched a pop-up sometime in the preceding year, with 10% planning to open one in the next five years.

Pop-up stores create a buzz

And it seems that everyone is adopting this growing trend, with hundreds of fans flocking to Manhattan this March after Kanye West launched pop-up shop ‘Pablo’ for just three days to sell his fashion and merchandise.

Tweeting the location of the store on the Thursday, many hundreds of fans and fashion lovers queued to be the first in line when it opened. Commentators at the scene described “touch of frenzy in the air” and that “the closest to the front argued amongst each other, determined to be the very first person in line”.

Creating an immersive brand experience, while reaching the largest target audience possible, most pop-up store designs are minimal and, therefore, cost-effective. This delivers the maximum impact in the shortest time possible.

Pop-ups are agile

Offering a cost-effective alternative to the flagship store, pop-ups provide retailers with a simpler solution. A solution that keeps retailers looking relevant while losing none of the impact.

Rather than spending all their time and budget creating the ‘perfect’ solution, retailers can instead focus their efforts on testing a variety of smaller experiments, using elements such as modular display structures and lightboxes, these elements can then be reused over and over again.

So what is better, the flagship or the pop-up?

With the rise of e-commerce, the importance of a physical presence, where people can actively experience a brand has never been more important.

And, no matter which model retailers decide to choose – ultimately it’s about how best to use trends in store design to captivate and draw in consumers, with variation and impact essential to keeping the customer engaged.