I was walking down Grant Avenue recently in San Francisco when I noticed a crowd of millennials and families with children lined up outside of the iconic, Roman Pantheon-inspired Savings Union Bank building. Until recently, the building housed the Emporio Armani Boutique and Restaurant. As I approached to get a closer look, I noticed that people were being ushered into the building by characters dressed in cheery, cotton candy-colored uniforms. What giddy dream did I step into? Turns out I was standing in front of the Museum of Ice Cream, one of the latest crazes among millennials and their Gen Z counterparts. For $38, visitors gain access to a very pink, wacky and instagrammable experience.

The Museum of Ice Cream is just one example of vacant retail space being put to good, profitable use, but the massive made-for-Instagram museum takes the idea of pop-up retail to the next level. Instead of products, this pop-up sells an experience.

As society spends more time socializing online and less in person, the museum’s co-founder and creative director, Maryellis Bunn, strives to create “environments that encourage social interaction between strangers.” Before starting the tour, visitors form a team, decide on an ice cream-inspired team name and finally explore the exhibits together as a group. Participants share their experiences with the group and with their friends via social media. Bunn coins this philosophy “social squared.”

The museum’s sold-out tickets demonstrate that there’s some proof in the pudding to Bunn’s social squared concept. Social media influences more than 80% of Gen Zers and 74% of millennials. And although these numbers drop significantly when compared to Generation X (58%) and Baby Boomers (41%), there’s no doubt that social media plays a definitive role in the purchasing funnel.

Marketing trends indicate that visual storytelling is just as or more important than the written copy in brand promotions. Technology has made shopping a more customizable and instantaneous experience, and retailers must devise new and exciting means of capturing a customer’s attention. Smart retail experiences like the Museum of Ice Cream allow brands to leverage physical spaces to tap into the social media craze while also appealing to more of their senses. At the museum, visitors sample ice cream and a variety of other sweet treats, make snow angels in the sprinkles pool, scratch and sniff the cherry wallpaper and hear squeals of delight coming from children and the young at heart. Brands leave a longer-lasting impression when they create and sell innovative experiences.

The verdict is still out on whether Bunn’s social squared concept is a sustainable marketing strategy or a flash in the pan. But the museum itself represents a brilliant use of the pop-up concept to activate and promote vacant commercial real estate. The CRE industry can learn a lot from enterprising millennials like Bunn who see the world through the lens of social media.

Anjee continues to be an insatiable enthusiast of all things retail. She’s a student of culture with a pulse on future shoppers and the fleeting trends constantly changing the retail landscape … driving retailers, landlords and developers crazy!