Interview: How Reebok is Using Technology To Make Shoe Shopping—And Running—More Accessible
PSFK spoke to Reebok and EPAM Continuum about their collaborative, tech-driven and interactive store installation, and the importance of a personal, humanizing approach to finding the right running shoes in a consumer-driven retail landscape
From gamified shopping installations to cutting-edge mobile technology, contemporary athletic brands across the board are trying to upgrade the traditional and relatively untouched in-store sneaker shopping experience. One of the innovators leading the way is Reebok; just this year, the English sportswear company launched a points-based loyalty program that features a more personalized, VIP experience, paving the way for what has ultimately become an industry-wide trend.
More recently, Reebok has focused on innovating the shopper journey within the physical store. The athletic brand has partnered with global innovation design firm EPAM Continuum to debut a prototype immersive experience in its retail flagship in Boston. Featuring advanced interactive technology and relevant programming, the installation guides customers through a series of prompts and ultimately provides a tailored recommendation for a running shoe.
PSFK caught up with Chris Froio, SVP/GM of Reebok America, and Chris Michaud, head of EPAM Continuum, to learn more about their humanized prototype, the value of vulnerability with open-beta testing and the future of the in-store shoe shopping experience for footwear retail across the board:
PSFK: For Reebok, what does the future of the in-store experience look like? What gaps in customer experience have you noticed in footwear retail in general that led you to develop this activation?
Chris Frioio: The problem that we're trying to solve is that the footwear industry has not evolved in how it communicates and educate the average consumer on how to buy the right footwear for their activity. And when we talk about retail environment and the interaction and experience that is demanded by the customer to keep them engaged and excited, we really feel there's a need for us to evolve and create something that's simple, intuitive and educational. We want to help the customer learn how to purchase the right shoe for their specific needs. That's where Continuum came in.
What were the strategies behind the design and tech-driven aspects of the prototype?
Chris Michaud: Where we start is, “What's the problem that we're trying to solve?” And in this case, there is a two-sided problem: For the average consumer, the amount of choice that's available for running shoes is vast and complicated, and it's really hard to know what the right product is based on what your need is. The other side of the problem was from a business standpoint. Reebok as an organization is looking for smart ways to engage the consumer online, in-store and in ways that match their lifestyle, in order to get them the right product but also to drive loyalty to the brand.
We sat back and asked ourselves, “Why do consumers run?” If you just stop there and ask that in an open dialogue, many will say, “Well, they run to be physically fit.” And that's certainly one reason why people run, but it's by no means the exhaustive reasons.
The spectrum ranges from competitive runners who are really driven to run at a professional or collegiate level, competing in a really hardcore way, to people who are just buying running shoes to walk in. They want to run for mental health benefits. They're running for social engagement.
When you start to understand the reasons why people run, it helps you think differently about the right products to support their needs. For somebody who runs for mental health benefits, comfort is going to trump performance. For somebody who's running for competitive drive, lightweight is not the technology you want to sell them—you want to sell them about being faster.
We understood both what consumers are looking for and the right way to talk with them about that. Based on that complexity, we strived to create a better experience for people to find the right product for them. We felt a major pain point in this process was the final product selection, especially for online shopping.
We wanted to create a really compelling in-store experience that would be reason enough for shoppers to come into the store and get that service. We stole a page from the specialty running stores, which have the more well-educated service employees who can really help shoppers walk through and understand the relevance of the shoe to their needs. We wanted to do that through technology, and engage consumers not just in a surprise-and-delight way, but in a way that actually helps them personalize their product experience.
We've all been in shoe stores, we’ve all seen those walls of shoes, and it's not engaging. It’s hard to know what product is right for you. With our experience, you're engaging in an interactive, immersive shopping process. It's the next evolution of shoe retail. And through some personal conversation and interaction, that wall starts to down select for you, dialing into what is the right product for you based on the reasons you personally run. That's the human-centric approach that we took on it.
Chris Froio: Being too techie is intimidating for many consumers. And it's one of the reasons why some people don't even go out to buy the shoes, let alone go for the run. What we're trying to do is create more access to fitness and make it less intimidating.
PSFK: Based on feedback so far, do you have plans to debut the experience in more locations?
Chris Froio: What we're doing now is a prototype. It's a beta phase. We're testing and learning. It's designed specifically for that store, in the space that it was provided. We want to perfect it, and perhaps work on an omni-channel adaptation of it so that it's not just an in-store experience, but also can be done online. Whether we do it simultaneously, while expanding into other stores or not, we haven't quite determined yet.
Chris Michaud: A lot of great running shoe development is designed, developed and marketed oftentimes by avid, diehard runners, and that's where some of that language and technology comes into play. It’s the world that they know, which is what allows them to develop great product for it. We wanted to extract parts from that niche market to help everyone who's interested in running. We also wanted to test it and bring it to life in store.
This is a beta interactive and immersive store experience, and I think that's really important because it shows that this was developed by imperfect people; we're willing to put something out there that's in beta form, and we're engaging and inviting people to interact with us in it to help make it better, as well as make running more accessible.
It's an authentic way to start to develop community with a much bigger group. I think even the fact that we're comfortable putting a beta out there has a human element to it. It shows that you’re exposed a little bit, that you're vulnerable, and vulnerability is a very human reality, especially for people who are just getting into running.
We've got this really magical but valuable personalization happening in a physical retail environment. As we continue to understand what's working and what's not, there is clearly the opportunity to get more involved in the digital space and to complete the omni-experience for consumers so that it’s always connected and feels seamless. Ultimately, moving forward, we just want to help more people enjoy running.
Lead image: courtesy Reebok