5 Best Practices for Sports and Outdoor Brands From REI, Nike and Lululemon

To thrive in the age of Amazon, sporting goods and outdoor brands must recognize that they have an edge. But they must also recognize that they’ve been using the dull side of the knife.

The U.S. outdoor and sporting goods market is a big one, worth $120 billion. Amazon accounts for less than 5% of those sales. However, the ecommerce giant’s growth rate far outpaced that of the individual brands: a 20% increase in sales year-over-year vs. 5%.

Amazon has become a one-stop shop for essentially everything — and it’s helped train consumers to expect fast, free shipping and top-notch personalization, to boot. Sporting and outdoor brands can stay ahead. It just requires more than providing an excellent customer experience, as that’s where Amazon has the edge. To thrive — or survive — brands like Dick’s Sporting Goods, REI and others must leverage what Amazon doesn’t have: expertise.

Sporting equipment is an investment. A decent pair of skis can cost $1,000, before you’ve even bought the boots, poles, that retro onesie… or lift tickets. Big, oftentimes technical, purchases require more customer confidence than when you, say, give a new laundry detergent a spin.

Ski equipment

Here are five best practices for leveraging expertise specifically for sporting and outdoor retailers and ecommerce players, drawing inspiration from both inside and outside this vertical.

1. Contextualize Your Customers Like RevZilla

Context is especially important for sports and outdoor brands. Not every activity is suitable for every season and not every customer even has every season. In Montana, June is prime mountain biking season, a sport that’s not so prevalent in Miami. And in the winter, while skiing takes over in Montana, Floridians don’t even see the snow.

To make the most from your marketing, always consider geography and climate alongside an individual’s specific interests. Think about a customer who purchased snowpants recently. Where does she live?

According to the SnowSports Industries America’s 2017 participation study, the three states with the highest number of skiers are California, New York and… Texas, which has little snow and zero ski resorts (but plenty of money). If your customer lives in Dallas, he might be an active skier, but most likely not an exceptionally regular one, given his geography. Does his purchase history express interest in other activities? Promote something related to one of those, since his ski gear likely lasts longer than average.

Need Inspiration? Check out RevZilla. This motorcycling focused retailer uses purchase history and geographic cues to personalize email marketing. Summer is prime motorcycle season so the brand tends to be a bit more active with product promotions. During the fall and winter months, they focus more on content to nurture consumers to purchasing during peak buying cycles. RevZilla also makes sure to promote gear such as rain jackets when it’s raining outside, for example.

RevZilla email

2. Master Mobile Like REI

The average American checks their phone every 12 minutes. So, 80 times a day. And as smartphones become more sophisticated, we rely on them for more things, including researching products, posting about brands on social media, and participating in loyalty programs.

Mobile is a crucial piece of the omnichannel journey, given how integrated smartphones are into every aspect of people’s lives. This is especially true for brands related to athletics.

According to Flurry Analytics data from last year, fitness apps have grown 330% over the previous three years. More than three-quarters of those consumers consult their fitness apps multiple times a day, too.

While you don’t have to launch a fitness app to go along with product sales, you must be thinking about how your mobile strategy enhances your customer experience, augments the data you have available to engage within context (see recommendation 1), and builds loyalty so that you can translate that into retention.

Need inspiration? Check out REI. REI has a unique mobile strategy, with eight different apps, all with their own value proposition. One is for shopping, another serves as a repository for national park maps, and others focus on specific sports. These apps were all created as part of one ecosystem that caters to customers’ needs – even those that are not based on selling. We’d like to see REI take this approach even further by connecting the various data sets from these apps to the marketing of products. If someone is researching Appalachian Trail hikes, a push notification or email from REI with products for hiking during upcoming seasons would be well timed.

REI apps

3. Extend In-Store Expertise to Ecommerce Like Nike

Shopping can be overwhelming. You know you need new running shoes, a term that encompasses thousands of products that all look pretty similar on the surface level. Employees are built-in brand ambassadors, but since ecommerce is permanently on the rise, brands’ in-store expertise must extend online, something with which many retailers struggle. Surveying 10,000 people in 11 countries, McCann found that 52% of consumers find online shopping “too impersonal.”

Think of a beginner who just purchased her first batch of spin classes. She likely doesn’t know where to begin. An employee can help her figure out what to look for in a pair of cycling shoes — and how to clip them on so she doesn’t feel like a spaz at SoulCycle. With the right technology, your online experiences can offer the same expertise.

Chatbots can help new customers figure out what they want, image recognition can help curate products and augmented reality allows people to see those products in motion. This is also where personalization really factors in. When done correctly, personalized product recommendations and predictive technology can bring a bit of the human touch to the online shopping experience, giving consumers the sense that brands really get them.

Need Inspiration? Check out NikeGQ has referred to the NikeTown store in downtown New York City as “the Disney World of Sneakers.” Nike uses all these tactics to brings its interactive, personalized shopping experience to its online properties as well. The sportswear giant, which tied for 20th on our inaugural Retail Personalization Index, allows Facebook Messenger users to unbox shoes with augmented reality and has a chatbot that helps people customize shoes, just to name a few. However, Nike could also use a similar chatbot on its website — in the “men’s sneakers” category alone, there are nearly 700 items.

Nike chatbot

4. Cater to Comparison Like Best Buy

Buying sportswear can be overwhelming because unlike traditional clothing items, nuances in product aren’t so obvious. What makes one snowboard different from the next? A salesperson at Burton certainly knows what separates an “instigator” from a “flight attendant.” But to the naked eye, they’re the same product, except one is blue and the other costs $95 more.

Some snowboarders are new to the sport. Others are expert-level, but may be new to buying their own equipment after years of rentals or generous parents. While those two athletes have completely different skillsets, they’re at the same level of shopping.
Go beyond the standard comparison chart (but have this, too) by personalizing comparison experiences.

For anonymous digital customers, don’t just recommend other products on a page with “others who liked this also liked” messaging; actually show details on those products in the recommendation and how they compared to the product being viewed. For buyers that you know, collect data explicitly around each user’s goals and perceived level within a sport. With that, as well as implicit interest data, retailers have a better sense of which products to recommend.

Need Inspiration? Check out Best Buy. The brand outlines the specs of its various products in a very digestible manner. If you’re looking for a new laptop, Best Buy’s website helps you narrow down the options. Once you confirm that you’re a Mac loyalist or a PC person — or educate yourself on the difference, another option — Best Buy takes it from there. The Find the Perfect Laptop feature shows side-by-side charts comparing your selections based on specifications, reviews, promotions and availability. We’d also love to see an option to email the comparison to yourself, as well as a Geek Squad chatbot to answer any possible questions.

Best Buy Find Your Perfect Laptop

5. Think Beyond the Buying Cycle Like Lululemon

You know your customers, what they care about, and what interests and motivates them. Use that data to create complementary experiences and content. It adds value post-purchase, increasing retention and loyalty in a way that great shopping experiences can’t achieve alone.

REI’s mobile strategy alludes to this tactic. The brand thinks past the purchase and focuses on how their customers are actually using those products. Sportswear and equipment has a relatively short shelf life; MapMyRun recommends getting new running shoes every three to five months, for example.

When it’s time for new gear, where do you want consumers to buy it? We assume the answer is “from you.” You can achieve that by engendering loyalty by adding value in ways unrelated to purchases. If you sell boxing gloves and wraps, host a class or give your customers the option to find classes near them through partnerships. If running shoes are your bread and butter, start a weekly running club, or send content post-purchase that speaks to taking care of the gear.

Need Inspiration? Check out Lululemon. Surveying Lululemon’s customers, MKM Partners found that 43% would still buy the brand’s clothes if prices increased by 10%. There are countless places to buy yoga pants, but Lululemon has become synonymous with the sport, thanks in part to its extracurricular activities. All around the country, Lululemon hosts in-store yoga and Orangetheory Fitness classes, run clubs, and even seminars about meditation and crystals. To really take this tactic to the next level, the brand should use registration and attendance data to inspire a post-class messaging series.


Lululemon yoga retreat



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Achieving a Competitive Advantage Over Amazon: 5 Best Practices for Sporting and Outdoor Brands