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Online retailer Brandless is popping up in West Hollywood – but not to sell you anything




Staff put some finishing touches on the Brandless “Pop-Up with Purpose” on April 30, 2018. It will be open from May 1 through May 13.
Staff put some finishing touches on the Brandless “Pop-Up with Purpose” on April 30, 2018. It will be open from May 1 through May 13.
Caitlin Plummer/KPCC

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If you stop and look inside the storefront just past the intersection of La Cienega and Melrose in West Hollywood, you’ll see pristine shelves of color-coordinated, brightly packaged products. There are boxes of crackers, containers of body scrub and tubes of shampoo and conditioner – but in two weeks, it will all be gone.

E-commerce company Brandless is taking over the space for 12 days to host a “Pop-Up with Purpose,” where customers of its online business and those who have never even heard of it can interact with the company and its products in real life.

The pop-up’s snack bar offers some of customers’ favorite Brandless products – like coffee, trail mix and candy – for visitors to sample.
The pop-up’s snack bar offers some of customers’ favorite Brandless products – like coffee, trail mix and candy – for visitors to sample.
Caitlin Plummer/KPCC

Brandless sells 300 items centered around “values” like organic, gluten-free or non-GMO. Most of its products are at the pop-up. There’s gluten-free pizza crust mix and tree-free bath tissue made from bamboo grass and sugarcane. They’ve even got chef’s knives.

Each product is just $3.

The idea is that quality products don’t need to cost as much as customers usually pay for them. So Brandless cuts out what it calls “the brand tax” – all of the markups that get added on by middlemen when customers use traditional retail channels. 

Each individual product Brandless sells is $3, but it also has bundles for customers looking to make one stop for whatever they need. The “Easy Italian Dinner Bundle” includes three types of pasta, two kinds of pasta sauce, extra virgin olive oil, basalmic vinegar, Italian seasoning and Italian dressing. All of the products included are organic.
Each individual product Brandless sells is $3, but it also has bundles for customers looking to make one stop for whatever they need. The “Easy Italian Dinner Bundle” includes three types of pasta, two kinds of pasta sauce, extra virgin olive oil, basalmic vinegar, Italian seasoning and Italian dressing. All of the products included are organic.
Caitlin Plummer/KPCC

But pop-up visitors won’t be able to buy any of these items – at least not in person.

“They’re not for sale because you can open your iPhone and buy them there,” said Brandless co-founder and CEO Tina Sharkey. “It’s really to experience it, to touch it, to smell it, to taste it.”

Sharkey and her co-founder Ido Leffler started Brandless in July 2017, with headquarters in San Francisco and Minneapolis. Now they ship products daily throughout the United States – which is why the pop-up is more of an experience than a store.

There are multiple playful backgrounds for Instagrammable moments and speakers on topics like wellness and food photography, not to mention tasting stations and samples for visitors to try out the products Brandless sells online.

At one of the pop-up’s tasting stations, visitors can pick three of the dressings and sauces Brandless sells to dip a cracker in. Then they’re invited to write their name on the placemat underneath and describe how each one tastes.
At one of the pop-up’s tasting stations, visitors can pick three of the dressings and sauces Brandless sells to dip a cracker in. Then they’re invited to write their name on the placemat underneath and describe how each one tastes.
Caitlin Plummer/KPCC

The choice to bring Brandless products to a real-life event is not surprising, said Vanitha Swaminathan, a professor of marketing at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business. 

“The issue with digital native brands is often consumers want to be able to touch and feel and experience them in offline settings too,” she said. 

Swaminathan thinks more e-commerce companies will start developing a footprint in real life, like Amazon’s presence at Whole Foods.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if many digital native brands start to do this, primarily because they want to sort of broaden their ability to connect with their consumers and engage with their consumers,” she said. “I certainly think there’ll be other examples of this going forward.”

Brandless co-founder and CEO Tina Sharkey talks to pop-up staff on April 30, 2018 as they prepare to open the following day.
Brandless co-founder and CEO Tina Sharkey talks to pop-up staff on April 30, 2018 as they prepare to open the following day.
Caitlin Plummer/KPCC

If the Brandless concept and website feel millennial, Sharkey said their target customer is everyone, regardless of age or what area of the country they live in.

“These are family managers, working professionals, college students, people living on a budget, people who have choice,” Sharkey said.

But Brandless chose L.A.’s West Hollywood to hold its first pop-up because of the foot traffic. 

“We wanted to go to a place where there were a lot of people that were just in the hood,” Sharkey said. “People we hadn’t met yet, people who could come in and see what we were doing because there’s such great energy on the street.”

West Hollywood resident Shantel Zorilla stops and looks inside the Brandless pop-up on April 30, 2018.
West Hollywood resident Shantel Zorilla stops and looks inside the Brandless pop-up on April 30, 2018.
Caitlin Plummer/KPCC

Shantel Zorilla lives just down the street from the pop-up. She was walking by when the $3 signs caught her eye. She asked if it was a joke.

“I just was like, ‘What is all of this?’ Cause they’re products that I use and then I was like, ‘All three dollars?’ ” Zorilla said. “And the packaging is really cute.”

Zorilla said she’ll be back to taste, feel and touch what – until now – has only been a virtual experience.

The Brandless Pop-Up with Purpose will be open from May 1 to May 13 in West Hollywood, with different workshops and speakers every day. Tickets are $9 and include a selected event and other pop-up activities.