Guest blog: Winning in retail – lessons from sports brands, Rob Ellingham, Creative Director, smp

The British high street has suffered major blows in 2018, with House of Fraser announcing store closures and Debenhams reporting record annual losses. Spending at UK department stores fell for the thirteenth month in a row in November, while sales figures for December revealed it to be the month’s worst performance since 2008.

In the face of adversity, brands and retailers alike have embraced the latest technological innovations, revamping their physical stores to create experiences that are not available to shoppers online. From Selfridge’s skate bowl installation to Converse’s One Star Hotel pop-up, it’s clear that brand experiences are central to winning in retail. Whether reformatting a store for the Instagram age, or making customers a part of the process themselves, physical retail can thrive by offering a combination of convenience and experience. Sport is one of the sectors currently leading the way.

There was a time when sportswear was just that, clothing worn for sport. The designs signified belonging to a team and your place within it. But as fashion embraced streetwear, the role of sports brands altered dramatically, changing the tribal attitude and defining the sector and retail experience with it.

Choosing a brand is driven largely by the desire to be associated with those known to wear that all-important badge: iconic sports stars, celebrities or peer group influencers.

Images in the press, on social media and in-store, powered by sports science, provide shoppers with reassurance and justification for buying into that tribe. Bearing a logo is a powerful statement of belonging and allegiance.

For the more confident shopper however, standing out is as important as fitting in. Attaining a degree of self-expression within the tribe then becomes important. As the tech required to personalise clothing becomes more available to retailers, consumers can customise items without incurring significant costs.

When two tribes go to war: customer engagement lessons brands can take away from Nike and Adidas

So, what can we observe in the big match between two sportswear giants, Nike and Adidas, as they exercise their plans to draw customers instore? Can they avoid the dilution of their brand values resulting from allowing shoppers to purchase through functional online discount retailers by adding entertainment to their high-street superstores?
Nike banks on its association with top sports stars. Using large video screen displays to capture attention from the get-go, it showcases flagship equipment and tech. Store walls and surfaces feature product grip patterns and textile designs to emphasise the company’s branded tech credentials. It differentiates its flagship store, Niketown, with an explosion of colour and pattern that score highly on attraction.

Staffed by friendly brand ambassadors, Nike prioritises human interaction, keeping stores low-tech. Shopper engagement instore is built on the immersive, enabling customers to personalise different items, such as sneakers or boots. The established trend among football fans to display a hero’s name and number on their shirt has expanded to offer much more, under the Nike ‘Customise your kit’ banner.
Adidas takes a very different direction to attract shoppers instore. Stores feature a monochrome colour palette to achieve the desired effect of a more urban, gritty ambience. Bare concrete and rugged textures of wire and steel create an authentic experience of a sports stadium or court. An integrated screen engages, entertains and educates, with content maintaining the brand’s urban style.

The German sportswear giant does offer customisation, but not on the same level as their American competitor. Instead, it uses sports science to achieve deeper engagement. Adidas challenges shoppers to test themselves. The customer’s stride is analysed on instore running machines to determine whether their performance could be enhanced and what pair of trainers is best for them. Not only does this add value for shoppers, making their visit more informative, it also adds a flair of the theatrical, maximising the entertainment shoppers are looking for.

The brand’s immersive offering is further boosted with key stores running group exercise and relaxation classes, reinforcing its expertise. The classes make stores event destinations, providing shoppers with another reason to visit and adding a further element of theatre.

Stores are there to serve the brand-faithful, as allegiance is determined well before they set foot anywhere near them. Their function is more an extension of brand perception, reaffirming the choice of tribe shoppers belong to, indulging a physical exploration of the range.
Interestingly, a visit to JD Sports, another sports heavyweight on the British high street, revealed a more rounded approach to the shopper journey, unconstrained from specific brand values.

The retailer’s investment in interactive tech is geared to providing consumers with a smoother shopping experience. Shoe activated augmentation platforms serve up specific range tech facts. Giant magic mirrors transform into a vast touch screen interface that offers a full ecommerce platform, allowing even out of stock items to be ordered. The platform is so intuitive to the millennial demographic, the store doesn’t need to signpost its function.

Permitting exploration of range and stock availability so freely of course means JD Sports doesn’t need staff on hand. Customers can simply call up a specific style and size of shoe, without having to wait to be served. For the brand neutral, this way of instore shopping is as close to the effortless experience of online shopping as possible.


Beyond sportswear


Think this model cannot be applied outside sportswear? Think again.

One needn’t look further than Google’s “Pixeldilly Circus” to see the exact same way of thinking put to good use to draw audiences instore. The tech giant 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 replacing a traditional staircase, Google offered a number of instagrammable moments, prioritising experience rather than sales. It also hosted a series of talks and workshops with leading guests 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.

From AR to VR, the introduction of the latest tech instore can boost customer experience. Retailers need to rethink how to best make use of their physical spaces to remain relevant for an increasingly digital audience. The real advantage of physical retail lies in its ability to offer consumers experiences – moments that cannot be replicated online. Creating an atmosphere will help give the store the buzz required to get shoppers to talk to their peers about more than a simple purchase, making the high street store a destination once again.


Rob Ellingham is Creative Director at smp

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