PUMA NYC skill cube digital experience

In recent years customer experience expectations at retail have evolved rapidly, and arguably the sporting goods industry has been at the forefront – setting new benchmarks in meeting an ever-increasing demand for ever more flexibility, convenience and personal relevance. However, the last few months have generated a huge shift in human behavioural patterns.

The COVID-19 pandemic – in little more than the blink of an eye – has inflicted sweeping changes across the entire retail landscape; shuttering stores worldwide, accelerating technology innovation and adoption, it has also brought into sharp focus the role that brands play in our day-to-day lives.

And with lockdowns now easing in many countries across the planet and retailers once again opening their doors many of us are now questioning what these changes actually mean for the future of sports retail, in particular the physical store?

Nike Town, London

The new rules of retail remain largely undefined. While we do know that the first steps back into brick and mortar will be tentative and restricted, recent reports of hundreds of customers bustling to get into Nike Town London, exercising almost zero regard for pandemic restrictions or social distancing, also clearly demonstrate (rightly or wrongly) that after many months of lockdown, many of us are craving real-world, sensory experiences.

But how will sports retail continue to provide experience touchpoints that resonate, while respecting the new concerns around physical engagement? 

Diversified points of delivery

Whether driven by medium-term anxieties like fear of touch, or an increasing desire for customers to want to navigate retail spaces on their own terms, it’s highly likely that sporting goods amongst other retailers will experience increased innovation and agility across retail design and integration. Already brands including Adidas and Nike are leveraging retail extension apps such as HERO to connect directly with customers, bringing product and real-time engagement to life via video, chat, or text. From contactless pick-ups to AI basket shopping and interactive queues, we would expect this trend of introducing new and helpful ways to re-engage customers and bridge the gap between channels and interactions more prevalent.

Developing congruent experiences

To ensure a congruent experience that really connects with customers, omnichannel is no longer just about developing interactive relationships with audiences (a pure joining of the dots approach if you like) it is about cultivating a customer relationship through joint passion and genuine empathy.

Given the rate at which tech is advancing and providing consumers with almost limitless access to products and services, grabbing and maintaining the attention of a younger audience will continue to prove challenging. With only 30% of 21-25-year-olds spending over six hours watching linear TV a week, around 50% view the same amount of TV online, linear TV is no longer a popular medium amongst most sports brand’s target consumer.

Brand activation through gamification continues to create much interest within the industry and we’re likely to see this across differing formats. Whether Fortnite and it’s trailblazer in-game collaborations, or Travis Scott performing an in-game virtual concert in association with Nike and generating 27 million unique virtual attendees worldwide, brands can create unique opportunities by blurring the lines between ‘the game’ and the real world.

In the physical space we brought this concept to life via a creative platform called ‘idols brought to earth’. By placing PUMA brand ambassadors – Lewis Hamilton, Antoine Griezmann and Romelu Lukaku – at the heart of a multi-sensory, immersive digital experience, we were able to create a series of virtual 1-2-1 training session where customers were encouraged to put PUMA footwear through its paces during an authentic trial with their sporting idol. 

PUMA NYC skill cube digital experience
PUMA Skill Cube, New York

Arguably the brands that are taking time to reimagine customer engagement today – utilising ‘invisible tech’ to remove all unnecessary barriers that stand in the way of a great human experience are the ones who will steal a march on how sporting goods retail will look tomorrow.

Of course, understanding your customers is the bedrock of any future retail strategy, but many brands don’t go much further than knowing who their customers are and what devices and platforms they use. In building truly connected retail experiences – not just knowing how to reach but what experience to engage with – brands need to go beyond the traditional demographic to create a psychographic of your customer; a deep understanding of how they behave and more importantly what they think and feel.

As an industry example, history (from previous crises) can gives us some clues as to the different personas that might emerge, such as ‘The Health Nut’: a new wave of health-conscious people, subliminally preparing themselves for the next pandemic by becoming fitter, stronger and healthier is likely. Prevention being better than cure is a phrase which will likely become ubiquitous in campaign strategies over the coming years.

Just as the Sharing Economy was created off the back of the last recession, new shifts in human behaviour will create new economies off the back of the recession to come. The habits and personas that come to fruition will therefore create opportunities for brands to add new kinds of value. Then through segmentation and understanding specific journeys, it becomes possible to use emotional mapping tools and data to gain a rounded customer view and align appropriate content strategies.

Omni-era workforce

Brands are already wise to redefining the traditional service roles such as sales assistant to associate, and the gig economy – accelerated by a post-pandemic, scale down in retail workforce – will continue to drive an omni-era workforce; a more flexible and on-demand approach that promotes individuality, self-discovery and variety. Shop-floor relationships will include live broadcasting and 1-2-1 consultations where associates are encouraged to be more creative and also harness their own social media abilities and networks to create more personable and locally relevant content and character, whilst amplifying the brands reach.

Puma boot launch at Ultra Football
PUMA boot launch at Ultra Football, Australia

In summary, consumers are totally accustomed to hopping between physical and digital and their expectation is that retail is similarly fluid. Adopting ‘new retail’  goes beyond omnichannel or omnicommerce, to really understand the behaviour of humans today and to create a mutual relationship using human experience design; the best enables us to plan visits in advance, react and flex in real-time, and curate our own experience every step of the way on our own terms.

Sporting goods retailers must recognise that although the physical store is here to stay, its role has fundamentally changed. As the distinction between digital and physical becomes increasingly outdated, the brands that truly embrace technology to create a seamless experience for all their customers, wherever they choose to shop, will ultimately win the greatest share of both sales and customer loyalty into the future.

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