With a Pouf!, This Pop-Up Store Entrepreneur is in Business

By Cindy Atoji Keene

When high-end importer Mohr & McPherson shuttered its Cambridge warehouse this summer, showroom manager Mika Nakafuji found herself out of a job. But seeing the now vacant retail space, she also envisioned an opportunity: negotiating to pick up the remaining nine months on the lease, she opened a pop-up store, Pouf! With Pouf! Nakafuji is hoping to test the Boston market for a handmade ethnic home accessories store while fulfilling a lifelong dream of being her own boss. In her native Japan, “life as a woman is very difficult and you are expected to play a supporting role and never express yourself,” said Nakafuji, who came to the U.S. in 1997.

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With lots of available unused commercial space, low start-up costs, and built-in marketing, seasonal pop-up stores have become a standard fixture. In Boston, corporate players like Pottery Barn, Toys R Us, Sikara jewelry, and Method have all opened flash-in-the-pan outlets, but Nakafuji’s mom-and-pop incarnation emphasizes artisan imports discovered on her Asian oversea scouting trips. Pouf!, which opened this fall, is an incubator for Nakafuji’s creative ideas as a specialty clothing designer and visual merchandiser.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Pouf!?
A: The initial idea of this store was born from a casual conversation.
I commented how versatile and practical a pouf is. It is easy to change the feel of a room by throwing a pouf in the space, and they are inexpensive functional furniture. Other than poufs as a piece of a furniture, the word Pouf also implies “suddenly disappearing.” It was just perfect for a pop up store. I plan to be here till June 2012.

Q: How did you get started as a pop-up store?
A: The most important criteria was finding an empty retail storefront with high traffic where the landlord somehow preferred flexible short-term lease. I studied pop up stores throughout U.S. to get inspiration and visited nearby accessories store to become familiar with what competitors do. I borrowed a computer, bought a sign and designed business cards with the cooperative effort of a graphic designer friend. Most of what I needed for fixtures were already there because it had already been a retail store. I opened after about 6 months of planning. I had only a rough business plan in my head; nothing formal.

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Q: You carry a lot of imported furnishing and accessories. How did you acquire your inventory?
A: I traveled to India and China, including Mumbai, New Delhi and Beijing and met all sorts of vendors, including antique and vintage furniture wholesalers, rug dealers, and a vendor who specializes in architectural elements. Goods were shipped by air and in one 40-foot sea container from India.

Q: You’re originally from Japan. How did these roots influence you? A: Japanese are trend makers. I have an ingrained appreciation for skilled craftsmanship; an eye for beautiful objects and an understanding of color relationships. In my shop, I am trying to create a lush look that recreates the feel of a bazaar in the East.

Q: What is your favorite item in the store?
A: Anything with kantha stitched textiles, which is a type of folk art and embroidered quilt. I have scarves, bedspreads, throws, chairs, and bags made out of kantha stitched textiles. Patchworks of silk sari are already beautiful, but when a few layers of them are stitched together with colorful threads, it adds a new dimension to the textile surface.

Q: What can U.S. retailers learn from Japan?
A: The Japanese sale staff’s manner is beyond excellent. They treat customers literally like a king or queen. A lot of retailers in this country have not made much of an effort to train staff to have good manners.

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