When the National Basketball Association (NBA) opened its 18,000 sq ft store in New York in 1998, it was the first major sports league to have a retail outlet. The original store was open for nearly 13 years and attracted millions of customers, yet its only nod to technology was an arena-sized LED video board, and other monitors throughout the store, that aired exclusive footage, NBA TV content and live game broadcasts. It was not until its new flagship opened in December 2015 (following a few years in a much smaller temporary store) that the NBA embraced the digital age.

The starting point for the transformation of the NBA's New York City flagship was that while there were many fans visiting the Fifth Avenue store, the NBA wanted to better integrate its brick-and-mortar location with its social-media-active and international fan base by providing an entertaining, memorable in-store experience and engaging with individual customers that had widely varying wants and needs.

The NBA set out on a journey that would deliver a 'wow factor' in showcasing the league's 30 teams, a seamless multichannel shopping experience, fan engagement through merchandise and an enhanced in-store experience through a combination of digital and non-digital assets.

Even with just a few months' trading behind them, the NBA has seen some immediate wins: there has been a 2x engagement with customers and a notable increase in basket size and conversions; in a 30-day period it also captured 600 email addresses.

Working alongside the NBA to deliver this ongoing transformation are retail consultants Kurt Salmon, which provided the original retail and digital strategy, customer research analysis and planning.

The first step in the journey was to undertake customer research. More than 70 hours were spent in store over four days during which the shopping behaviour of 100 customers were observed; interviews were conducted with more than 40 customers from all over the world, as well as with store management and staff.

"We looked at the shopping experience end-to-end and determined that we had real gaps and opportunities to improve the sales process," explains Eric Heacock, NBA's vice president, global venue development.

"From the research, we identified key metrics across the customer journey, such as the purchase triggers and barriers, and found out who our customers are and what their journey looks like."

The NBA discovered that customers who browsed for more than ten minutes purchased 370% more than customers who spent less than four minutes in the store and their basket size doubled. Customers who were engaged with sales staff increased conversion by 182% and if engaged multiple times ended up staying longer, trying on and buying two to three times more merchandise, even without any active cross-selling.

The NBA has embraced in-store retail technology (image credit: John Muggenborg)

Like most retailers, the NBA did not have a single customer profile; in fact, it attracted four distinct customer types, each with a unique set of characteristics and shopping behaviour. These were:

  • local runner – often shopping alone; an avid fan who affiliates with a team/player; looking for something specific; will leave and purchase elsewhere if the desired item is not available
  • targeted traveller – a local resident or domestic tourist likely to affiliate with a team/player; browses the entire store, but only looks at specific team merchandise; often on a mission to buy something, but not a specific item
  • domestic experience seeker – a tourist, typically with a group, looking for something specific, often for a gift; has affiliation or shopping for someone with affiliation for team/player; open to suggestions for other items to purchase as substitute or add-on
  • the international browser – a tourist typically with no strong team/player affiliation; browses the entire store; often interested in buying something for the Americana affiliation.

All four types needed help in finding products/sizes and showed a desire for product related recommendations; the international shopper was also interested in learning more about players/teams. The NBA also wanted to enhance customer engagement across all customer segments.

The NBA explored dozens of technologies and interactive elements and came up with a list of 13, each of which was evaluated on reach, business impact, implementation difficulty and ROI.

From this, the NBA prioritised three technologies for the launch: hand-held devices for sales staff, interactive product displays and real-time displays. Enhancements to these will be phased in over the next 18-24 months.

There is now integration between eCommerce (products and CRM), NBA digital media (players, teams, leagues, events), social media, NBA TV and a custom in-store content management system.

Staff are empowered to drive sales with tablets that give access to the NBA's e-commerce site and product information, helping them turn apologies for out-of-stocks into satisfied customers; with the translation tool they can help customers of many nationalities and, for those not familiar with the sport, recommend products that suit them or assist with finding gifts based on team/player preferences or simply what's hot. Sales staff also have access to all the player, team, and league stats so they are just as knowledgeable as the fans.

Real-time displays show game highlights, marketing promotions, event announcements, social media feeds and sponsor activities, alongside player and game stats.

Multiple interactive store portals ranging from 46" to 84" provide direct access to game highlights, player and team stats, product information, in-store events and wayfinding to all three floors.

An 84-inch transparent LCD display highlights NBA's Authentics ("what the players wear") clothing line. Blurring the digital and physical worlds, the installation details unique product features on the merchandise itself, interspersed with moments celebrating the speed and athleticism of the game. Video-game kiosks, Pop-A-Shots and player measure-ups offer a more analogue interactive experience to complement the digital programme.

"Every amenity and interactive moment acts as a chance for NBA to show its appreciation for the fans, connecting them with the teams and sport that they love and give them an immersive experience and opportunities to connect to the NBA in many ways," adds Heacock.

Design features have been included to encourage interaction and nurture affinity. For example, fans can compare their own shoe size to top player Shaquille O'Neal's size 22.

Fan apparel is presented inside a "locker room" stocked with merchandise for all 30 NBA teams; an NBA Hardwood Classics area features curated memorabilia and an LCD screen featuring archival NBA content; sneakers sit along a 40-foot-long wall made of an undulating nylon "shoelace" lattice that mimics the movement of a basketball play on court.

"Every bit of fun and flash in the new store ties back to business goals and customer engagement insights," explains Heacock. "At the beginning of the journey we set out some guiding principles for the inclusion of in store technology: that we would target investment in technology for maximum ROI; would not implement technology for the sake of technology and we would balance the entire store experience with digital and non-digital assets."

He adds: "From this first phase of the project our takeaways have been: know your customer and their behaviour before you choose and implement technology; keep design simple and focus on high impact pieces; and phase the implementation – walk before you run – and monitor metrics."

In addition to Kurt Salmon, the NBA worked with Gensler for physical and digital design, and TAD Associates for audio visual and multimedia design.

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Kurt Salmon

Gensler

TAD