Winning in Retail This Christmas: Lessons From Sports Brands

The trials and tribulations of the high street have continued throughout 2018, with House of Fraser narrowly avoiding administration by announcing extensive store closures, and Debenhams reporting record annual losses.

But it isn’t just retailers who are suffering. Brands are having an equally tough time, with the likes of Superdry also feeling the effects of dwindling footfall to the high street. In fact, November saw spending at UK department stores fall for the thirteenth month in a row.

But brands and retailers are starting to fight back. Many have revamped their physical stores with the latest technologies to create experiences that shoppers simply don’t have access to online. By bringing digital elements into the physical space, retailers can offer the perfect combination of convenience and experience that shoppers crave.

The experiences vary from store to store, sector to sector. For example, when speaking to the BBC, Conna Walker, CEO of House of CB, highlighted the importance of making the retail experience a sharable moment; a principle on which the brand was founded. Whereas Lush has embraced theatrics to offer customers a much more immersive experience.

Whether reformatting a store for the Instagram age or creating moments where customers become part of the process themselves, it’s clear that the key to winning in retail lies with offering shoppers something that digital alone can’t – an experience. And sport is one of the sectors that is currently leading the way in experiential.

Sportswear was once just that; technical clothing worn for sport. It signified belonging to a team and your place within it. But as fashion and streetwear combined, the role of sports brands shifted – and with it, the retail experience.

The brand someone chooses to wear is tribal; driven by the need to be associated with others known to wear that all-important badge; sports stars, celebrities or influential peers. Backed by sports science, relevant images in the press, social media and instore provide shoppers with reassurance and justification for buying into the tribe. Bearing the logo then becomes a powerful statement of belonging and allegiance.

The more confident shopper however requires a certain degree of self-expression within the tribe. They want to fit in – but also stand-out. So, the idea of being able to personalise their kit or clothing is very appealing. And, as the relevant technology becomes more accessible to retailers, it’s something they can now offer to customers more easily and cost-efficiently.

So how do two competing giants, Nike and Adidas, use this as part of their wider plans to draw customers instore? Can they avoid the dilution of brand values resulting from allowing shoppers to purchase through functional online discount retailers by adding entertainment to their high street superstores?

Nike highlights its association with top sports stars and showcases flagship equipment and tech by using large video screen displays to capture attention from the get-go. It differentiates its flagship store, Niketown, with an explosion of colour and patterns designed to capture attention. Store walls and surfaces are adorned with product grip and textile designs, emphasising the company’s branded tech credentials.

Instore engagement is primarily driven by an immersive experience that enables customers to personalise mass-produced items such as boots or trainers. Under the Nike ‘customise your kit’ banner, customers can adapt, accessorise and personalise items to make them more individual.

Nike also promotes a greater degree of human interaction, keeping stores low-tech while staffing them with friendly, knowledgeable brand ambassadors.

Adidas adopts a far different approach to attract shoppers. Its stores use a monochrome palette to create a more urban, gritty ambience. Materials such as concrete, wire and steel are used to great effect to reflect the feel of a sports stadium or court, providing customers with a more authentic experience.

Like Nike, Adidas also offer a customisation service, but not on the same level as their competitor. Instead, it challenges shoppers to put both themselves and their chosen product to the test. In-store running machines allow customers to try the fit and feel of Adidas trainers. Using the latest sports science, the customer’s stride is analysed on the machine to determine whether their performance could be enhanced. It’s a great piece of instore theatre, but also adds value for shoppers, making their trip to the store more informative and entertaining.

In-store, the urban feel is lifted with the introduction of an integrated screen that engages, entertains and educates. The content reaffirms the brand’s urban style and provides the tech-savvy audience with instagrammable moments.

Key stores also run group exercise and relaxation classes, further reinforcing the brand’s sporting expertise. The classes add a sense of theatre and scale to stores, turning an everyday shopping trip into an immersive experience, and giving customers an additional incentive to visit.

Stores of this size and scale are, of course, there for the brand-faithful whose allegiance is established well before they set foot anywhere near the shop. For them, it’s more about reaffirming the choice of ‘tribe’ they’ve elected to belong to.

Nike and Adidas both embrace their individual values to present a very brand-centric face to shoppers. But JD Sports, the high street’s other sporting giant, is free to explore a more rounded approach to the shopper journey; having no specific brand ties.

The retailer’s investment in interactive technology provides customers with a seamless shopping experience. Tags on trainers launch augmented reality platforms that serve specific facts on the shoe, range or tech, while giant magic mirrors transform into a vast touch screen interface that delivers a full ecommerce platform; even allowing out-of-stock items to be ordered. The platform is so intuitive to the millennial audience, the store doesn’t need to signpost its function.

By giving customers the opportunity to explore the range and availability in this way, JD Sports doesn’t need staff on hand. Customers are free to call-up a specific style and size of shoe directly, without having to wait to be served. For the brand-neutral shopper, this service-oriented way of shopping in a store comes very close to the effortless experience of shopping online.

So, how have brands in other sectors embraced this retail model to thrive at Christmas?

Google promoted its new smartphone Pixel 3 by creating ‘The Curiosity Rooms;’ a discovery-hub promising to make ‘the everyday more extraordinary.’ From a pink laundrette to a slide that replaced a staircase, Google offered up a number of instagram-worthy experiences built around moments rather than sales.

Instead of pushing posted, they hosted a series of talks and workshops with leading figures from the worlds of fashion, food, music, art and tech, including a session where guests were invited to create their own unique items using the Pixel 3.

Retailers need to re-think how they use their space if they want to attract an increasingly digital audience into their physical stores. Creating an atmosphere will help give the store a bit of a buzz the introduction of cutting-edge tech such as AR and VR can boost the customer experience and provide shoppers with the chance to ‘try before they buy’ – so they can see for themselves which product is the best for them.

But the real advantage of a physical store lies in its ability to provide consumers with an experience; moments that cannot be replicated online. Once shoppers have a reason to talk to their peers about more than just a purchase, the high street will once again become a desirable destination.

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